Mary J. Blige: “Reflections: A Restrospective”
After Mary J. Blige married, she got all happy on us. No more drugs. No more drinking. No more drama. And the scariest part about that? She wasn’t afraid to testify to love on a slew of songs on her latest colossal-hit album “The Breakthrough.” But despite fending off her demons, Mary proved to be musically apt even when she’s up (and, no, not on drugs). Now, Blige answers those who wonder why Mary’s not mad on the blissful, brazen lead single “We Ride (I See The Future)” from her first-ever “hits” collection, “Reflections: A Retrospective” (which caps a glorious year chock-full of awards). The album-opener, the hookless “Reflections (I Remember),” teeters on cliche and would’ve been better served by the inclusion of “MJB Da MVP” from her recent studio album. A chemistry-less slow jam with John Legend on “King and Queen” never takes flight and quickly spirals into an insipid affair. The crunk “You Know,” with Blige’s vocals in the fast lane, fares better. Obviously, with seven platinum albums and a voice that at times recalls Aretha Franklin, Blige has nothing to prove. But, at 15 songs, the collection seems incomplete. Where’s “You Remind Me”? What about “Deep Inside”? “Love @ First Sight”? Blige may be the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, but this collection lacks several songs that passed her that torch.
Gwen Stefani: “The Sweet Escape”
There’s enough on Gwen Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape” to keep the mouth watering. But some of it’s more like sucking on Sour Patch Kids than eating a Pop Tart. Just try sinking your teeth into the faux “Orange County Girl.” You’ve gotta hand it to Stefani, though. She’s made a name for herself through plugging away at what she makes seem like effortless pop confections. On percolating lead single, “Wind It Up,” Stefani’s zest for perky tunes is paired with the stylings of “The Sound of Music.” Yodeling fixation aside, the rest of the mostly-bouncy beats are laced with lyrics involving Stefani’s marriage, motherhood and staying afloat the pop pedestal. The synth ’80s aura, explored more fully than on her solo debut, fits Stefani’s style, who seems more in touch on this album with the early offbeat Cyndi Lauper than Madonna. On the dreamy ’80s-revival “Early Winter,” a lament tracing a failed affair co-written with Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley, the Orange County gal gets in touch with her emotional side, much like Lauper’s genuine “Time After Time.” Destined hit “Yummy,” akin to Kelis’ “Milkshake” and featuring a rap cameo from Pharrell, seems whack when the lyrics are considered, but the slinky sound suits Stefani’s sweet persona.
Damien Rice: “9”
Nothing on Damien Rice’s sophomore album – albeit the haunting gem “9 Crimes” – compares to the epic “The Blower’s Daughter” from his seductive debut. That’s not to say the Irishman’s follow-up doesn’t mish-mash his throaty voice with some moving orchestration. It’s just that “9” too often relies on that and lacks the engaging, raw lyrics his debut “O” bled with. “9 Crimes,” where Rice blends his dramatic voice with singing companion Lisa Hannigan, creeps from a lone piano to full-on orchestration. Like much of the cathartic fodder, Rice’s sensitive aura – cemented by the tender “Sleep Don’t Weep” and “Accidental Babies” – gets lost with the repetitive “fuck you” on the raucous, whisper-to-scream “Rootless Trees.” The Irish God of Gloom’s follow-up is just the opposite: a root without a tree.
Sugarland: “Enjoy the Ride”
Much like the Shanias and Faiths of country music, Sugarland can confess to blurring country and rock. But if either chanteuse were to voice-wrestle with the trio’s lead vocalist Jennifer Nettles she’d take the gold. It’s Nettles’ husky voice that’s sealed the band’s near-flawless sophomore album as one of the best country albums this year. The feisty “Settlin'” sets up Nettles’ throaty wail. On subsequent tracks, like the clever coming-of-age ditty “Want To,” the lyrical timing about jumping in to a relationship fits perfect as the drums plaster over a Dobro and mandolin. Even the lyrics, most penned by Nettles’ bandmate Kristian Bush, shine: “You got my heart in your daddy’s boat, we got all night to make it float.” When Nettles ain’t rockin’ the boat, she takes it down a few notches, and proves she’s just as capable with lighter ditties, like “Stay,” a soulful acoustic heartbreaker, and “April Showers.” Using Hurricane Katrina as a deeper subtext for faith in the midst of tragedy, “One Blue Sky” erupts with that kind of passionate magic that only voices like Nettles can utter. Sugarland’s uncursed sophomore album is like a rollercoaster. And it’s one helluva ride.
Joan Osborne: “Pretty Little Stranger”
Even when taking a milder and honky-tonk approach to still-heartaching tunes, Joan Osborne isn’t a stranger to pretty melodies. And on “Pretty Little Stranger,” she plays mostly to her strength: her voice. On the overdue melancholy set Osborne sounds like a winning weave of Rosanne Cash and Linda Ronstadt, her voice often either aching or agitated. On the weepy gem “Time Won’t Tell,” Osborne’s smoky voice, with backing vocals from Vince Gill, traces lovelorn regret classic-country style akin to Patsy Cline. Osborne’s departure, with an equal ratio of covers to originals, boasts hit players, including harmony help from Alison Krause on “Holy Waters.” Even when she pegged God as one of us in the ’90s, the Kentucky native had the rare ability – as a female singer/songwriter – to treat her lyrics like fine China. That’s why Osborne’s “Stranger” is worth getting to know.
Moby: “Go: The Very Best of Moby”
Ignore the fact that much of “Go: The Very Best of Moby” relies on current material. After all, some of his best techno and gospel-infused tracks were recorded between 1999’s “Play” and 2005’s “Hotel.” For Moby inductees, it’s a good place to start. It’s likely tracks on “Go” will jerk memories of the vegan’s addictive, innovative electronica; however, it may not have been from hearing them on the radio or on MTV. In fact, it probably wasn’t. Commercials and film soundtracks, though, found his playful, rapid beats to spice up their medium. Unfortunately, the songs, as fetching as they are, became background noise. The high-energy fusion of “Lift Me Up, the gospel-flavored “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” and the awe-inspiring tribute to Sept. 11 victims “We Are All Made Of Stars” all stand-out in the 16-song collection, which is also paired with a remix disc. The Gwen Stefani-less album cut of “South Side” is an aching addition, but Moby’s “Go” still gets the green light.