HARD CANDY – MADONNA
Marketed and distributed by Warner Music Gallo Africa
For all those fearful of what Madonna might have come up with after working on new material with high profile hip-hop producers, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Apart from the weak first single 4 Minutes (reminiscent of 2003’s messy collaboration with Britney Spears, Me Against the Music), Hard Candy is pure Madonna. Despite enlisting the likes of Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, The Neptunes, and Nate “Danja” Hills, Hard Candy remains a dance / pop Madonna album at heart. With a more American dance-floor influence than her previous outing, the earnest Hard Candy is less camp than Confessions on a Dancefloor. It’s also surprisingly retro and diverse in its musical influences. Hard Candy continues the diva queen’s lifelong tribute to the dance floor. It’s a paean to the joy and freedom of grooving to the beat; the tracks Heartbeat and second single Give It To Me, being fine examples. But there are also a couple of more personal tracks on offer, with these hinting at a fading relationship: “You always have the biggest heart, When we’re six thousand miles apart,” she sings bitter-sweetly, possibly about hubby Guy Richie, in Miles Away. Incredible is a plea to re-ignite a once passionate relationship: “Don’t want this thing to end, I’m missing my best friend, Yes it was incredible…” This is the pre-voice-trained, pre-Evita, pre-lah-di-dah Madonna and highlights her underrated skill at singing in a range of harmonizing vocal tones. Hard Candy is a clever segue from Confessions on a Dancefloor: It’s not Madonna’s best work, and perhaps lacks depth, but it’s a fantastic, smartly crafted, pop experience nonetheless. “Don’t stop me now, don’t need to catch my breath. I can go on and on and on,” she insists. And, based on Hard Candy, I have no doubt that she can.
SPIRIT – LEONA LEWIS
Marketed and distributed by SonyBMG Music Entertainment
The world of music is a deep and murky pool into which many aspiring artists disappear, never to be heard from again. Thankfully for all of us this didn’t happen to Leona Lewis: The winner of the third season of the UK’s X-Factor, Leona became a superstar overnight. Her cover of Kelly Clarkson’s A Moment Like This became the UK’s Christmas number one in 2006, beating Take That’s Patience by selling 571 000 copies across the UK. It was also downloaded 50 000 times in 30 minutes, making it a certified hit. Upon release, her debut full-length album, Spirit, followed in the single’s footsteps, entering the UK charts at number one as the UK’s fastest-selling debut album and the fourth fastest-selling album of all time…and with good reason. With one album, Leona Lewis has been propelled into the same league as Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion – she is simply that phenomenal. If Bleeding Love, the massive first single from Spirit, did not convince you, the pop sensibility of songs like Whatever It Takes and Yesterday may just do the trick. Take A Bow is an emotional tour de force with a killer beat that comes a close second to Bleeding Love as my favourite, while her interpretation of the classic The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face rivals Celine Dion’s masterful remake. Say what you want about Simon Cowell, but with Leona Lewis he has yet again proven that he is a genius talent-finder. She is undoubtedly 2008’s biggest new voice.
E=MCÂ² – MARIAH CAREY
Marketed and distributed by Universal Music SA
After a disastrous album, feature film and a very public nervous breakdown, Mariah Carey bounced back in 2005 with The Emancipation of Mimi, a spectacular album that spawned one hit after the other, ending the year as 2005’s best-selling CD. On production duty was R&B guru, Jermaine Dupri, who, incidentally, is Janet Jackson’s fiancÃ©. Now, the recently married Ms. Carey, hopes to imitate the success of Mimi with her new album, E=MCÂ². First single, Touch My Body, went straight to the top of the charts and became Mariah’s 18th US number one, knocking Elvis off the list and putting her second (behind the Beatles) for most number one singles in rock history. What is odd though is that Touch My Body is a fairly average song: sweet and seductive in a playful way, but certainly no masterpiece. In fact, “no masterpiece” is an apt description for the entire album. It’s completely listenable and radio-friendly, which will probably equate to a few radio hits and high album sales. Sadly it’s just too plain and average with nothing that really stands out, which is surprising since it was produced by the who’s who of R&B and hip-hop. With E=MCÂ², Mariah Carey proves that an album with lightweight content can lead to a disproportionate amount of success.
DISCIPLINE – JANET JACKSON
Marketed and distributed by Universal Music SA
While The Emancipation of Mimi ended 2005 as the year’s best selling album, Janet Jackson’s 20 Y.O. didn’t do much on the charts, selling even less than 2004’s Damita Jo. As with Mariah’s Mimi, 20 Y.O. was produced by Jermaine Dupri and when Virgin Records complained about the album’s lackluster sales he left his position as head of urban music and followed Janet to Island/ Def Jam, working under LA Reid (who produced Mariah’s disappointing E=MCÂ²). But unlike Mariah, Janet stuck with Jermaine and as such it is not surprising that Discipline is Janet’s best album in at least five years. In fact, Discipline became her first number one album since 2001’s All For You. Ballads like Never Letchu Go are reminiscent of those from her glory days, while the funkier, upbeat tracks like Feedback and Rollercoaster strike a fine balance between tradition and technology. Janet manages to incorporate today’s popular electronic sounds into her music with absolute ease, the fantastic Luv and Rock With U being stellar examples. All in all, Discipline combines the best of her two-decade career with the best of today’s popular sounds to make a remarkably enjoyable, up-to-date collection of songs. The odds are that Discipline will sell significantly less than E=MCÂ², but in my mind there is simply no doubt that Janet Jackson has released the better album.
HERSTORY – LISA THEUNISSEN
Marketed and distributed by Lisa Theunissen (www.lisatheunissen.com).
It is not often that I am truly impressed by original South African music. This is by no means because it is substandard, but simply because local bands often fail to truly capture the raw energy of their live performances on CD. But Lisa Theunissen is in a completely different league. Having been based in the UK for the past decade, she has undoubtedly had access to international production facilities; but not even the latest technology can create ta