Music Monday: Old Favourites (AKA When Music Was Awesome)

Pop music has been sort of my bread and butter. It’s pretty much what I grew up on, between my dad listening to ABBA and the Bee Gees; my sister  listening to New Kids on the Block, Debbie Gibson, Madonna, George Michael; and the modern Vietnamese music I gravitated towards – pop music was in me from the get-go. Once I hit the all important tween years (before it was really even called that) in the late 90s, the pop music scene was reaching a whole new level. MTV was still playing music videos and the prevalence of TRL certainly helped elevate the status of pop stars (and other artists) to what we remember. The songs were infectious and well-crafted, which also applies to the R&B music of the time. Maybe it’s a sense of nostalgia when I hear them, but 10-15 years later, I feel like a lot of the songs held up incredibly well; there was something about the music in the late 90s/early 00s that had such an appeal. So with that being said, I give you a rather comprehensive playlist of some of my favourites from back in the day.

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5 Fandom Friday: Songs That Changed My Life

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Music has always been such a huge part of my life. I can’t do anything without having music on in the background. Music has this way of making you feel things: joy, sadness, anger, nostalgia – in a lot of ways, it’s very therapeutic. In any case, this week’s Fandom 5 was a simultaneously fun and daunting task. How am I supposed to pick FIVE songs that changed my life, in any way shape or form? And what songs should I pick? Well, here it goes.

1. Bao Han & Don Ho, Lien Khuc Thien Dang Ai An

Vietnamese music was my gateway to all music and in particular, pop music. As a first generation Vietnamese-Canadian, one of the ways that my parents used to make sure I still knew my Vietnamese background was through Paris By Night. I feel like this was one of the first songs that I actually remember listening to when I was a kid and both of these singers became my favourite Vietnamese singers. Because of my early exposure to it, I still listen to Vietnamese music regularly, which I can’t say the same for a lot of other people my age.

2. Britney Spears, Baby One More Time

It seems a little funny to be including this song, but it did impact my life. Growing up, obviously I listened to music but it was more passively than anything, I feel. Then Britney got introduced to the pop music world, with this song and things changed. 1999 was the height of teen pop music, with NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, among others all making their marks on the scene. With Britney and this song, I became a whole-hearted fan of someone/something.

3. Christina Aguilera, Fighter

For the longest time I was Team Britney all the way. But then I saw Christina Aguilera in concert (when she did the Justified and Stripped tour with Justin Timberlake) and I became a fan with no allegiance to one particular “pop princess”. This song was what turned me into a fan, with its rock-infused pop that makes it a great song to let off some steam. It’s an anthem for all of us, to not let anyone get us down and keep fighting. The sheer power of Christina’s voice mixed with the rock sound of the song is what makes it so amazing, and even more-so when you hear her perform it live.

4. Kelly Clarkson, Because of You

Kelly singing “Without You” on American Idol sealed it for me as a fan. Post-Idol though, I loved her debut album, Thankful, but I think we can all agree that Breakaway, her 2nd album, was a turning point. There was just so much honesty and truths in this album that I could relate to on some level. But with this song, I attached my own experiences at that point in my life to it, and it grew into this big emotional song for me. Honestly, I can’t even hear this song without tearing up, and it gets me EVERY SINGLE TIME.

5. Maroon 5, This Love

This song made me a fan for life, from the very moment I watched them perform this on TRL (hey, remember TRL?) At the time, it was everything I didn’t know I wanted from pop music: the fusion of pop, rock, soul in a completely different way from that of JT or Kelly Clarkson. It’s a definitive M5 sound that’s been an inspiration to other pop/rock bands.

6. Justin Timberlake, Like I Love You

Ok, so I’m cheating a little by adding one more song but I can’t help it! JT made a seamless transition from a member of NSYNC to a solo artist with this song. For me, this song will always hold a special place in my heart because it marked the beginning of my life in high school and my Dance Crew life. As it was, I was already learning the choreography from the music video, and then when I tried out for Dance Crew, as luck would have it, they taught a combo to this song. After that, I spent the remainder of my four years being a part of Dance Crew, who became my second family. All the good and bad memories from my high school years started with this song.

 

5 Fandom Friday: My Favourite Holiday Songs

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For a couple months now, The Nerdy Girlie and SuperSpaceChick have put together a link-up, 5 Fandom Friday, each week with a different theme. I’ve been neglecting it but no more – starting December right with my first 5 Fandom Friday post! Now, I admittedly can sometimes be a grump about Christmas-related things. Some people will listen to Christmas music as early as November 1st; I, on the other hand, consider two weeks before Christmas to be an acceptable time-frame, but that’s just me. Anyways, that being said, I give you my 5 favourite holiday pop songs, and just because I feel like cheating a little bit, my 5 favourite classic holiday songs!

HOLIDAY POP SONGS

  1. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays (NSYNC) – I’m sorry, but as far as original Christmas songs goes, it does not get any better than this song. I’m a little biased because I love NSYNC, but tell me this song doesn’t instantly put a smile on your face and get you excited for the holidays! Or how about that hilarious music video? (Oh the 90s…)
  2. All I Want for Christmas is You (Mariah Carey) – An original song that became a classic. Who doesn’t love this song?
  3. Last Christmas (Wham) – It’s kind of a sad Christmas song, wrapped in an upbeat pop tune, but I love it nonetheless. For some reason, this is one of the first Christmas songs I ever knew (I call it a mix of my sister being a George Michael fan, plus hearing a cover of it by one of my favourite Vietnamese singers – my influences as a kid are so varied, you don’t even know).
  4. Christmas Time (Christina Aguilera) – “There’ll be family, and Christmas cheer/Peace and good will to all man/ Everybody is home for Christmas/It’s Christmas time.” A perfectly solid pop/R&B song that sums up Christmas.
  5. My Favorite Things (Kelly Clarkson) – Was this song always considered a holiday song? I don’t really know, but it is now! Of course only Kelly Clarkson could get me to listen to Christmas songs early when she released her holiday album “Wrapped in Red” last year, and I instantly fell in love with her jazz-y version of this song.

 

TRADITIONAL HOLIDAY SONGS

No explanations necessary. I just love these songs.*

  1. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
  2. Silent Night
  3. The Christmas Song
  4. White Christmas
  5. O Holy Night – *Though for what it’s worth, I LOVE NSYNC’s acapella version of this song.

 

Album Review: Christina Aguilera “Lotus”

Christina Aguilera is back with her 5th studio album (not including her Spanish and Christmas albums early in her career), Lotus, and the album is a return to form for the incredible singer. Her last album, 2010’s Bionic, was anything but “back to basics” (save for a few closing tracks) as the singer forayed into the world of dance/electronica music, which came off as though she was trying way too hard to adapt to current popular music. On Lotus, however, Christina returns to her pop roots, while still holding on to some of the dance tendencies that has now taken over radio – it’s Stripped meets Bionic and still a different side of Christina Aguilera.

TRACK-BY-TRACK REVIEW

  1. Lotus Intro – It’s an intro, so there’s not much to say about it. Although clocking in at a little over 3 minutes, it is mighty long for what it’s supposed to be.
  2. Army of Me – Christina has deemed this song as “Fighter 2.0”, which to be honest is kind of a tall order. Thematically, they are very similar, with a message of empowerment. Musically though, they are two very different songs. “Fighter” was a powerful, edgy pop/rock (heavy emphasis on the rock) song, that featured Christina’s vocals in full force. “Army of Me” has a rock tinge to it, but the chorus features a very dance heavy beat that sounds a little like Katy Perry’s “Firework.”
  3. Red Hot Kinda Love – A fun upbeat song that doesn’t really have much to it lyrically; it’s almost equivalent to Britney Spears’ “Big Fat Bass.” To me, it’s probably the weakest song on the album, mainly because Christina could do much better than this song.
  4. Make the World Move [ft. Cee Lo Green] – After collaborating with Adam Levine and the rest of Maroon 5 on “Moves Like Jagger”, Christina works with another fellow Voice coach, none other than Cee Lo Green. It’s a dance-pop track that is sort of an amalgamation of everything Christina is (or has shown us so far) as an artist. It’s a pop song, mixed into a dance beat (making it ripe for current radio), and it also has an old school 70s soul twist to it. This could be a really good hit for Christina.
  5. Your Body – It’s still surprising to hear that this is the first time Christina has collaborated with Max Martin, the man who has been such a force to be reckoned with in pop music, writing and producing for Backstreet Boys, Britney, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, and the list continues to grow. Upon hearing the song a couple months back, it felt like a return to Christina around the Stripped era – pop with a lot of sass, and that’s the Christina I love to hear.
  6. Let There Be Love – Without a doubt, the most dance heavy track on the album, which will certainly play well in the clubs but it’s not a sound that I particularly like. Thank god for Christina’s vocals being so definitive or else this song could easily be washed away with all the other dance songs out there.
  7. Sing For Me – This song epitomizes what is so great about Christina. It’s not a stripped down/acapella song, but the production on it is more on the minimal side and sort of harkens back to the power pop ballads of the 90s, particularly when the song starts to come to a close. The ‘less is more’ of it all allows Christina to sing the hell out of the song.
  8. Blank Page – Proving once again what a great team they’ve become, Christina works with Sia on this beautiful ballad, that really puts Christina’s voice front and center with, it seems, only piano accompaniment.
  9. Cease Fire – The song carries a militant/army sound, and when the chorus kicks in, I immediately knew that it was one of the tracks that Alex Da Kid produced. It’s a rather unique sound, with its slight touch of hip-hop, and sort of surprises me that Rihanna didn’t get her hands on this song, as it is right up her alley. But Christina, despite pulling back on the vocal theatrics, really gives the song a bit more life and weight than anyone else could have done.
  10. Around the World – I don’t know what it is, but once again, this is a song that feels like it would be right up Rihanna’s wheelhouse, with the hip-hop/pop/rock fusion. It’s an okay song, nothing spectacular.
  11. Circles – I hate to repeat myself, but what I said about the previous song applies here too. The one difference with this song is that Christina’s adding some attitude with her lyrics (“Spin around in circles on my middle, middle finger”). Also, unfortunately, Christina’s greatest asset (her voice) is found behind layers of production.
  12. Best of Me – Taking a swipe at the media, and really anyone, who has said bad things about her, Christina gives us this track that continues the self-empowerment theme found quite often on this album. It’s another song produced by Alex Da Kid, so you can definitely hear the hip-hop influences on here. At one point, when the chorus comes in the second time, the militant drum beat sounds a little similar to Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.”
  13. Just A Fool [with Blake Shelton] – Leave it to the collaborations to be the highlights of the album. Easily my favourite track off this album is this song, where Christina completes the Voice trifecta and duets with Blake Shelton. People are dubbing this song as country-pop (granted, it’s thanks to the likes of Taylor Swift, what classifies as country is a little iffy) but the singers bring a lot of soul into it as well. If Christina, or rather the record company, were smart, they will release this song as a single and I would not be surprised if it became a hit along the lines of Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson’s duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” It’s that good.
  14. Light Up The Sky [Bonus Track] – This mid-tempo track serves as a great way to show off Christina’s powerful vocals, starting off with Christina and a piano backing, then slowly builds towards a percussion heavy chorus that allows her to really belt. My only qualm about the song though is that while Christina’s strong vocal play is evident on the chorus, at the same time, the production on that section sounds a little too much.
  15. Empty Words [Bonus Track] – Another bonus track, another mid-tempo track. There’s nothing particularly spectacular about the song, that’s not to say that there’s anything bad about the song either – it’s an okay song. Actually, it sounds a little like a Ryan Tedder-produced song (even though it’s not) with the piano/drum line.
  16. Shut Up [Bonus Track] – Christina brings out a lot of attitude on this diss track, telling haters to “shut the [eff] off”. The song starts off innocently enough, with a little bit of a throwback sound. However the more you listen to it, particularly the chorus with its bleeps in “shut the —- up”, it begins to sound like a comedy song –  you know, like what Andy Samberg does with The Lonely Island.
  17. Your Body (Martin Garrix Remix) [Bonus Track] – It’s a dance remix. I skipped it.

Overall, Lotus is definitely a vast improvement over Bionic, allowing Christina’s voice to actually shine instead of hiding behind layers of production. It’s not her best album by any means (that honour, in my opinion, goes to Back to Basics) but it’s still a pretty good album. If you’re a fan of Christina’s, I don’t think there’s much here that will disappoint. If you’re a fan of what’s on the radio right now, give this album a listen, because Christina Aguilera’s voice alone elevates even the most mediocre song to something worth listening to.

Cover Songs: Love Them, Hate Them, Can’t Get Enough of Them

I love cover songs. I think it is totally awesome when artists sing another artist’s song, especially during concerts because it mixes things up a little bit. On her recent “Stronger” tour, Kelly Clarkson performed at least 3 cover songs at each stop: 2 were part of the setlist (Florence + the Machine’s “Heavy In Your Arms” and Carrie Underwood’s “I Know You Won’t”) plus a fan request. I’ve heard Maroon 5 sing “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “If I Ain’t Got You.” James Morrison and Diane Birch once performed “With A Little Help From My Friends.” John Mayer has sung “Free Fallin” and “Gone.” Justin Timberlake sang “This Love” at one of his benefit concerts (even though he technically performed that with Maroon 5). This is just the tip of the iceberg and I could go on and on with amazing covers.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized where I draw the line when it comes to covers. Hearing covers in concert is one thing because I’m watching an artist I’m a fan of so they can’t do much wrong in my books. But over the years, watching so many TV shows where covers abound like Idol, The Voice, X-Factor, and now with Glee + Smash, my reaction to song choices vary from the usual groan and eye-roll when a song that’s been OVERDONE is sung again (11 years of Idol will turn you into a cynic) or total excitement. There has been countless times when we’ve heard female contestants sing songs by Mariah, Whitney, Celine, etc. even though they don’t have the range for it. But then there are a lot of cases where singers do a fantastic job covering the song by either changing up the song to fit their style (Hello David Cook’s version of “Always Be My Baby” and Kris Allen’s “Heartless” that’s STILL on my iPod) or just simply singing the HELL out of the song. Some covers are even better than the original. Glee, in my opinion, does this the best – take an okay song or one that’s entirely overplayed and make it better/worth listening to (i.e. Blame It On the Alcohol, Teenage Dream, We Found Love). For certain songs though, I’ve found that I can’t even like the cover, despite how good it might be.

In the episode of Glee entitled “On My Way”, the Troubletones sang Kelly Clarkson’s “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)”. I was excited to hear it, but at the same time, it was like “Why couldn’t they pick another song?” I think it comes down to the fact that it was a single and I like Glee better when they’re not doing songs that are already on the radio. After I heard it, I felt kind of indifferent about it – it was good but I didn’t really like it. Why? I realized that I’m fiercely protective of when anyone sings Kelly’s songs. I mean I love Kelly Clarkson – she’s one of my favourite artists ever and I love her songs like they are the soundtrack to my life. So for me, I don’t think anyone should ever sing her songs, unless they can do the original justice.  Megan Hilty sang “Breakaway” on a recent episode of Smash and though there’s no denying that she has a great voice, I didn’t feel as though it carried the same weight as Kelly’s original. But again, maybe that’s because “Breakaway” was such a big song for Kelly. Then on Glee, at the end of the episode “Choke”, Lea Michele sang “Cry” off of Kelly’s “All I Ever Wanted” album and I thought she did a fantastic job with the song. It fit nicely with the storyline and worked well with Rachel Berry’s feelings, so it didn’t feel forced. Actually, it was a nice reminder of what Glee was like when it started. Now of course it really is a track-by-track basis, in terms of what I’m willing to accept.

Christina Aguilera is probably one of the best voices in the industry; she’s got a diva voice. We’ve heard people sing “Beautiful” and “The Voice Within” among other Christina songs, and it’s usually met with the same eye-roll and groan. I thought Amber Riley did a good job singing “Beautiful” on Glee, but I definitely was not happy about Darren Criss singing “Fighter” in the episode “Big Brother.” Not that there was anything really wrong with his version, but “Fighter” is one of my all-time favourite songs and no matter how much angst we’re supposed to feel from the storyline, it just can’t match Christina’s sheer power.

Then there’s Adele. Over the span of this past year, I have no idea how many times an Adele song has been covered. Scratch that, over the span of the past 6 months, I have no idea how many times an Adele song has been sung on TV. I’ll admit I liked  Angel Taylor and Mathai’s attempts at singing “Someone Like You” and “Rumour Has It”, respectively, during their blind auditions on The Voice. Before that, Glee did a great mash-up of those 2 songs as well. But now it’s just plain old fatigue of hearing people try to sing Adele. Just stop please.

It’s not just songs by these artists with big voices being covered that have me  up in arms. I have deliberately  sort of avoided American Idol this past season because it got tiring, with the theme weeks and the judges making no sense. But there was the one week where the theme was songs from this decade (so, the past three years in music). Seeing what the set list was ahead of time, I found it to be an interesting line-up, so I actually attempted to watch the show that week (in between my regular television shows of course). I only came out disappointed, feeling like it was a slap in the face because they not only ruined 2 Kelly Clarkson songs, but also a Maroon 5 song. I know, one should not compare a contestant’s rendition to the original, but let’s be real, it’s inevitable and you can’t help it. The contestant in question, Phillip Phillips, re-arranged Maroon 5’s “Give A Little More”. I’ll embed both versions below and judge for yourself. But while the original has a sexy quality to it (what Adam Levine does seamlessly), Phillip re-arranged it somehow to make it cheesy (Saxophone? Really?). This also doesn’t mean The Voice gets off scott-free either because I was REALLY not impressed with RaeLynn singing “Wake Up Call”. Sure the song can be made country but not by RaeLynn, sorry Blake. And I know Adam seemed to like it, but as a fan, I was not having any of it.

Those are the artists, who in recent weeks/months have been covered that I’ve had problems with. On the flip side, I always love a good Britney Spears cover. I love Britney, and to me, she’s pure pop royalty. People can say what they want about Britney, but damn does she not have some great catchy pop songs? I love it when people cover Britney because her songs aren’t obvious choices. When people hear Britney, they just hear the music because she’s never really been known as a vocalist (which she isn’t and we all know that). So hearing someone sing a Britney song, gives a somewhat cool factor. Naturally, when Tony Lucca sang “…Baby One More Time” on The Voice, I flipped out because the whole thing was just PURE GENIUS. Same song, different show – Marty Casey was absolutely brilliant with his version on Rock Star INXS back in 2005. In concert, I’ve heard Kate Voegele sing “Till the World Ends” and again, I geeked out.

Consider this me ranting about song choices on TV shows (reality or otherwise). Also, a justifiable excuse for me to post videos of some cool/awesome (and I guess one not-so-great) covers. Enjoy!