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Greatest Hits: Sound & Vision

Posted : 9 years ago on 29 November 2009 08:06 (A review of Greatest Hits: Sound & Vision)

The 2001 Greatest Hits release is still the best single disc compilation of Blondie’s catalogue ever. The only real omission from that set is “Good Boys,” a single which wasn’t released until 2004. Greatest Hits: Sound + Vision is a great, but imperfect, assortment of their biggest hits and a few album tracks and remixes. The second disc, an almost comprehensive collection of their music videos, is a welcome and nice addition to the fold. If you don’t already own a best of collection from Blondie, this isn’t a bad choice.

I still have a bone to pick with “Heart of Glass,” the band’s best known song and one of their greatest moments, being available only as the radio edit on every greatest hits compilation. The two missing disco-thumping minutes of the 12” remix make a great song a thing of complete and utter beauty and perfection. If “Good Boys” had been included in its worthy frothy, vampy Euro-disco album version the two extra minutes could have been taken up by the best version of “Glass” ever. The Blow-Up remix of “Good Boys” is fun, but shouldn’t have been the first choice for that song’s inclusion. The album version is still the best. This is the same problem one encounters on “In the Flesh.” Instead of the original Shangri-Las with more bad girl edge, we’re given an almost stupid minimalist club-minded remix courtesy of Super Buddha, the production team behind Debbie Harry’s uneven Necessary Evil. And, lastly, “Rapture Riders,” a mash-up between The Doors and Blondie, is cute as a lark but totally unnecessary. Instead of that mash-up I’d rather they had included “X Offender” and “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear” on the American release (they’re both present and accounted for the international releases). And where is “Detroit 442”? It’s not on any version of the album. For all of these reasons the album strays far away from the 5 star rating I wanted to give it.

The rest of the album is pretty flawless. The single edits are present on several songs (“Rapture,” “Call Me,” “Maria,” “Atomic”), and this is to be expected. They’re not as great as the album versions, but without being presented in their single/radio edits there wouldn’t be enough room for the rest of the hits. Non-single tracks like “Fade Away and Radiate” and “End to End” are a welcome treat. Especially since they’re two of the best album cuts on Parallel Lines and The Curse of Blondie, respectively. The partially chronological order of the set showcases their evolution, while the first half plays like a hodge podge shuffle of their biggest and most well known hits. Blondie’s catalogue actually works fantastically when shuffled together.

The DVD offers great, incredibly primitive pre-MTV music videos. The DVD is also missing “X Offender” and “Presence, Dear,” which makes no sense since the dangerous, sexy punk of “Detroit 442” is present on the DVD. Highlights include Debbie Harry looking so painfully bored with her own beauty in “Heart of Glass,” the ghetto chic of “Rapture,” the silent film carnival of “Good Boys,” and the pouty “Denis” during which Harry wears a swimsuit like street wear. “The Tide Is High” isn’t presented in its original space alien themed version. Instead, it’s the montage of previous music videos that’s more commonly seen. This DVD gives it back some of the points it lost. So does the previously unreleased cover photo from the Plastic Letters era. DOWNLOAD: “Dreaming,” “Sunday Girl,” Fade Away and Radiate”

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Station to Station

Posted : 9 years ago on 24 November 2009 07:39 (A review of Station to Station)

David Bowie was deep into his cocaine addiction when he recorded Station to Station, and the album’s art school pretensions and emotional detachment speak to that. The fact that it is also an avant-garde masterpiece is due to his musical genius.

Prior to his Bowie had recorded ‘plastic soul’ albums like Young Americans and he was about to transfer to his Berlin period. Station to Station is the exact moment of transition. With only six songs and only one under the five minute mark, it’s not an easy album to listen to but it is highly rewarding.

His latest character is ‘The Thin White Duke,’ who is introduced to us on the opening title track. That regal-yet-detached character summarizes the entire album. If Kraftwerk had decided to record an album of James Brown material, it might have sounded like something similar to this. Bowie’s one hell of a singer, and he gives every song a specific voice and character, but his actorly mannerisms are at full force here. If he sounded anymore distant and artificial on “Stay” or “Word on a Wing” he might as well have not even shown up in the studio. I adore him for it. “TVC15” sounds like his vocal was beamed in from outer space, “TVC15” is also the track which points most obviously to the transition ahead. While the famous single, “Golden Years,” carries on the artificial R&B crooning of the previous albums, “TVC15” sounds robotic in every sense of the word. Low and Heroes seem like more obvious destination points after listening to that song.

I have stated it a few times, but I feel like it needs to be hammered in: this is not an album for everyone, but if it sounds even remotely interesting I encourage you to check it out. David Bowie is an artist who just so happens to make music. He appropriates and throws off styles, characters, mannerisms and obsessions with a skill and speed matched only by his most famous offspring, disco queen Madonna. Long before she was doing it, Bowie was there doing it with more theatrical abandon than anyone else. His albums are layered, dense, rich works of art. How Station to Station got to No. 3 on the charts is anyone’s guess. DOWNLOAD: “TVC15”

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White Light/White Heat

Posted : 9 years ago on 24 November 2009 07:39 (A review of White Light/White Heat)

More so than other of the other Velvet Underground releases White Light/White Heat delves more into the proto-punk and early metal and industrial rock grooves that the Velvets would go on to inspire. With only six noisy tracks, White Light/White Heat proves that great music doesn’t need to be radio friendly to prove its worth. In fact, some of the best music has been ignored by radio, just ask Lou Reed.

The Velvets were always inspired by the narcotic overdrive of the Beats, especially William Burroughs’ heroin fog of a ‘novel’ Naked Lunch, and the soulful pop of Motown, the primitive country rock & roll of the Sun Records boys and the Phil Spector Wall of Sound. White Light/White Heat takes all of those influences and refuses to polish them off, leaving behind dirty and trashy avant-garde experiments.

“The Gift” barely qualifies as a song, or even anything close to resembling one. As John Cale reads a short story, or possibly a narrative poem, the rest of the band creates a noisy jam session soundtrack that has nothing to do with the story unfolding. The one song that sounds even remotely like a real song is “Here She Comes Now,” and it’s oddly the least interesting track here. It’s not a bad song by any means, but compared to the drug-and-sex fueled “Sister Ray” or the you-are-there amphetamine trip of the title track, “Here She Comes Now” plays its very safe. And “I Heard Her Call My Name” bounces back and forth between the dingiest of metal guitar grooves and almost-pretty verses.

While the title track is my personal favorite song on this set, the closing seventeen-plus minutes of “Sister Ray” have to be heard to be believed. Over churning, crunching, looping and droning skuzzy dirty-bomb guitars, Lou Reed delivers a…well, something about drugs and dark, disturbed sexual dalliances. I’m not quite sure what it’s all about, but I do know that it’s responsible for the punk rock movement, and for that I am thankful. Every Velvet Underground studio album is top of the line and amazing. White Light/White Heat is no different. DOWNLOAD: “Sister Ray”

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The Singles 1992 – 2003

Posted : 9 years ago on 24 November 2009 07:39 (A review of The Singles 1992-2003)

Even more so than Rock Steady, The Singles 1992 – 2003 proves that No Doubt are my generation’s version of and answer to Blondie’s legacy. They’ve got the same downtown glamour (this time it’s California instead of New York), genre-hopping skills, and songwriting muscle. At times they even resemble the Police or English Beat, some of the greatest New Wave groups to ever come along.

I would have preferred for the song selection to have been in chronological order, which would have highlighted the band’s development and muscular growth over the years, and for the inclusion of the rest of the singles from No Doubt and any of the singles from The Beacon Street Collection, but what is here are all of the biggest hits. From the opening Devo-like guitar intro of “Just a Girl” to the closing overly-caffeinated third-wave ska of “Trapped in a Box” not a major radio hit is missing. 

The non-chronological order does make the second half very ballad heavy. The first ballad doesn’t appear until eight songs in, and it’s the mid-tempo bouncy ska of “Underneath It All,” and there are only fifteen tracks. While "Underneath It All" is a lovely reggae song, an insecure love poem with a guest toast from Lady Saw, it's presence at the halfway mark throws the flow of the album out of joint. After this, the tracklist alternates between a rave-up and a ballad, culminating in the back-to-back appearance of "Don't Speak" and "Simple Kind of Life" at the close. But the presence of extensive liner notes and the gorgeous silver, black and white color scheme make the entire package highly attractive.

The lone new song, a cover of Talk Talk’s 1984 hit “It’s My Life,” follows that band’s original version almost to the hilt. Very little is added to make the track more distinctive, but Gwen’s breathy sighs and confident vocal delivery make it a charming cover none the less. The playful video didn’t hurt things either. I love their cover, but still prefer the original. While they were lumped in with the short lived mid-90s ska craze, No Doubt was always a New Wave band at heart. The delicate music box of “Running,” the hard-driving “Hella Good,” the rockabilly swagger of “Excuse Me Mr.” and the robotically assembled rocker “New” all point towards first generation New Wave acts like Blondie, Elvis Costello or the Police as reference points. Not to say that the squealing vocals and reggae bounce of songs like “Sunday Morning” or “Spiderwebs” don’t point towards the Specials or Madness, but the band has always been rooted in New Wave as an entire movement which encompassed the punks, the ska kids, the New Wavers, and the rockabilly kids.

If you’re not interested in getting any of No Doubt’s studio albums and only want their most well known songs then this will do the exact trick. Otherwise, this works as a great introduction to the band. After this I suggest checking out Everything in Time to hear what didn’t make their biggest albums, and checking out everything from Beacon Street on. Some of their best songs weren’t the singles. DOWNLOAD: “It’s My Life,” “Bathwater,” “Trapped in a Box”

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Most of All -- The Best Of

Posted : 9 years ago on 24 November 2009 07:36 (A review of Most Of All - The Best Of)

Most of All: The Best of Deborah Harry delivers on the title’s promise, the only problem is that Debbie Harry’s solo output was wildly uneven on a good day. So while with one or two exceptions, where’s “Liar Liar”?, this is the best collection of her biggest solo singles and appearances.

The first three songs are pure dance-pop magic. “I Want That Man” is just as kitschy and pure fun as when it first came out. “French Kissin’ in the USA” retains its cutesy New Wave synth-pop core. It’s also slightly hypnotic in its laid back and mellowed vocal delivery. “Brite Side” is the closest thing to a ballad on this collection, and it’s a great slice of late-80s/early-90s pop. After that the rest of the compilation starts to dip in quality. “Feel the Spin,” “The Jam Was Moving” and “Rush Rush” remain great fun, even slightly naughty and subversive, but the some of it is just too anemic to be great dance music. Which is a problem since this music was obviously targeted at the club-minded audience.

Although a few of the tracks prove that she could have gone into different, possibly more fruitful paths. “Well Did You Evah” from the Red Hot + Blue AIDS benefit is a good time to be had by all. Iggy Pop, one of the greatest and most underappreciated elder statesmen of alternative rock, duets with Harry on a Cole Porter song. You can practically hear them cracking up at each other in the studio. Perhaps Debbie Harry should have tried to sing the American songbook and add her own downtown glamour to the recordings. There’s a great cover of “Stormy Weather” from a different compilation that proves she’s got the muscle and attitude to do something surprising with it. “Rock Bird” is a rocking synth-pop song. Maybe Harry should have played around more in the trashy New Wave which she helped pioneer, create and bring to the mainstream with Blondie. Whereas Blondie was all glamour, chic and sophisticated, “Rock Bird” has more in common with her spiritual offspring like Berlin or Missing Persons. This isn’t a bad thing since Harry can do it with more brains, sass and vocal talent.

I love Debbie Harry. No other musical icon has entertained me, thrilled me or influenced me quite as much as she has. I fully admit that her solo career as a singer is difficult to support, but her work with Blondie and influence on the music industry cannot be challenged. There’s much to love and admire about this collection, even if you have to sit through some duds to get to it. DOWNLOAD: “Rush Rush,” “I Want That Man,” “Feel the Spin”

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Posted : 9 years ago on 19 November 2009 09:54 (A review of Trampin')

Trampin’ is the first album that Patti Smith cut for Columbia, and it’s by turns just like the good ol’ Patti and a bit of a generic letdown. The album that this has the most in common with is Dream of Life. It’s not a vivid and wild declaration of her artistry, influence and might, but a simple waving of her hand to show that she’s still around.

Trampin’ does have its moments though. “Gandhi” is the kind of insane, nearly spoken word poetic narrative over noisy rock guitars that she's known for. (In this case, it’s either a biography or an extended metaphor, possibly a combination of both?) “Trespasses” is a beautifully performed, written and sung ballad. “My Blakean Year” marries her love of rock with her penchant for self-mythologizing and love of poetry. “My Blakean Year” comes closest to achieving her rock as revolution and spiritual revelation ideology. And “Peaceable Kingdom” which is largely acoustic and free-flowing thoughts about politics, war, Utopian ideals and dreams, it’s an exquisite piece of music and it is continually growing and changing throughout its five minutes.

Opening tracks “Jubilee” and “Mother Rose” are lyrically great, but musically flat. They’re stuck in melodies and productions that are nothing but generic. They deserve better. But, like her spiritual poet-rockers Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, she often overreaches yet you respect her for trying. I would rather hear one of them experiment wildly and create something decent, for them, than the latest auto-tuned pop tart. This is real music performed by a real musician.

On Dream of Life Patti Smith sang that “People have the power,” but it’s really Patti who’s got the power. The power to move, create, to make you think, to confound and challenge you. She is a remarkable artist. Yes, even when she creates something that doesn’t excite me the way Horses, Easter, Gone Again or Gung Ho do. Every album by her is worth, at least, one listen. DOWNLOAD: “My Blakean Year”

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The Ronettes: The Early Years

Posted : 9 years ago on 19 November 2009 09:54 (A review of The Ronettes: The Early Years)

The Early Years doesn’t feature any songs that rival anything the Ronettes cut with Phil Spector, but they do showcase the foundations of their sound and them working out the kinks. If anything, it’s worth a few spins just to hear Ronnie Spector belt it out. At times they sound like the Chiffons or the Exciters, but Ronnie’s voice makes them more distinct and individual. While these might not be as great as “Be My Baby,” “Walking in the Rain” or “Baby I Love You,” they are no less necessary to the mystique, glamour and legend behind the Ronettes. It’s always interesting and revealing to hear the origins and growing pains of any musical icon. DOWNLOAD: “I’m Gonna Quit While I’m Ahead”

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Confessions on a Dancefloor

Posted : 9 years ago on 16 November 2009 08:02 (A review of Confessions on a Dance Floor)

With American Life having been a stateside failure, Madonna did what any smart businesswoman or politician would do: cut her losses and appealed to her constituency. In this case, that would be the (mostly gay) clubs that got her started way back in the late 70s/early 80s. Confessions on a Dancefloor isn’t just a fluffy piece of disco-pop. While it’s not quite at the level of Like a Prayer or Ray of Light, it is just a tiny bit below Music. To phrase that in non-fan terms: it’s a great album from the reigning Queen of Pop.

The opening shot of “Hung Up” remains one of her greatest moments as an artist. From that ABBA sample to those sassy lyrics, the Madonna from the 80s made a comeback and there’s no denying her. And “I Love New York” has a almost-Stooges flavor, if, you know, the Stooges had layered synthesizers upon their hard-hitting guitars. It’s a return of the Madonna brassiness that made her a superstar in the first place, don’t try and over think it, just go with her. “Future Lovers” with it’s Donna Summer sample and spoken-word segments sounds like an instructional video for the kind of dance-inspired spirituality she’s been talking about for the past few years.

“Get Together” and “Forbidden Love” move along on slinky ambient electronic grooves which reference her past, past dance hits and other artists in the electronic field when she first appeared on the scene. And “Like It Or Not” works as the album’s closer simply because it sounds like Madonna’s philosophy for living, even if it is a string of clichés. Her vocal performance and attitude make it work. While “How High” and the sublimely beautiful “Isaac,” which sounds to me like the story of Isaac from the Bible and not the Kabbalist icon, create a Middle Eastern disco genre that create two of the best moments on the album. Madonna’s best moments are always when she explores spirituality through the transitive power and nature of music, dance and love. Confessions is full of these kind of moments.

I absolutely loved Confessions when it first came out, and I still do. It’s definitely one of my favorite Madonna albums. It’s a delicious mixture of Donna Summer inspired disco and ABBA-licious good times. DOWNLOAD: “Hung Up”

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Knock Knock Knock

Posted : 9 years ago on 16 November 2009 08:01 (A review of Knock Knock Knock)

Hot Hot Heat’s five song EP Knock Knock Knock is as quirky and jittery a neo-New Wave alternative dance party as Make Up the Breakdown. In fact, these songs wouldn’t sound out of place wedged onto the end of Breakdown. Bays’ nasal brat-punk voice is tailor made for music like this. “Have a Good Sleep” owes an obvious debt to Gang of Four (guitars), Elvis Costello (lyrics) and the Police (the almost ragga-like keyboards). “5 Times Out of 100” jerks back and forth between energetic party song and a dark, chaotic mid-tempo breather. And the metallic boot stomp intro to “Touch You Touch You” sounds like pure Devo-esque nerdy art-punk New Wave. While Hot Hot Heat never sound like they’re biting the style and posing as these bands, they do sound like they’re merging their references with their own point-of-view to make something new and fresh. DOWNLOAD: “Have a Good Sleep”

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Absolute Garbage

Posted : 9 years ago on 16 November 2009 08:01 (A review of Absolute Garbage)

Garbage’s greatest hits plays like the assembly line of sounds and textures of the 80s and 90s alternative rock scenes. Shirley Manson is the perfect voice and image for this kind of music: all brass attitude, smoking-in-the-girls-room sass, yet there’s a thinly veiled romanticism and vulnerability. She’s essentially the updated form of Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux or Patti Smith depending on her mood, or the song. I’ve always found it absolutely thrilling.

Garbage and Version 2.0 provide the vast majority of the sixteen singles present on the album, which is both expected and slightly frustrating. Beautifulgarbage and Bleed Like Me weren’t slouches for great singles and album tracks, but they didn’t quite capture the ears of the public like the first two albums. Which is also a shame. But what is here is a flat out great assortment of songs.

Early singles like “Vow” and “Queer” represent the mild flirtation with fetishistic and kinky sex that Garbage would bring to bigger and badder life on later releases. “Special” and “When I Grow Up” show that Garbage was, above all things, a neo New Wave act with a fondness for electronic bleeps and burps. While “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)” showcased Manson’s impressive range and the band’s willingness to experiment with different pop and alternative rock textures. “Cherry Lips” is also the best Debbie Harry impression I’ve heard from anyone. But it’s ballads like “Bleed Like Me,” “You Look So Fine” and the mid-tempo swinging 60s British pop of the newly recorded “Tell Me Where It Hurts” that prove Garbage have always been the Pretenders 2.0, that’s not a dig against them since I love them more than the Pretenders. The other new track, a remixed version of the Bleed Like Me album track “It’s All Over But the Crying,” actually improves upon the original.

Absolute Garbage, despite being the cleverest named Garbage album ever, is far from the essential Garbage recording though. Well, if you’re a fan like I am, then it’s not. Although the previous unreleased and soundtrack only songs, like “No. 1 Crush” and “The World Is Not Enough,” make it a damn fine purchase. If you’re looking for the band’s best moments and don’t feel like getting an actual album then this will work like gangbusters. DOWNLOAD: “Tell Me Where It Hurts,” “No. 1 Crush,” “The World Is Not Enough”

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