It’s time for another week of 1001 Albums, and this one’s a special anniversary as we’re celebrating one year of the blog being on WordPress! Thanks to everyone who reads and supports this project; I probably would have lost interest without you babes keeping me going.
This week, we’re looking at some of the finest 90s/00s pop cuts. Of course, classical and opera fans would say they’re all pop albums, but you know what I mean. Let’s see what’s on the plate.
Christina Aguilera, ‘Stripped’
Initially I was resistant to the Xtina character and the tacky sexy gimmickry, but the big three singles off this album were all really good (‘Fighter’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘Dirrty’), which shows promise. The album starts off strong with Christina and her collaborators turning their hands to a variety of genres and segueing them together with intros which elevate the importance of the early tracks, and give Christina plenty of space for her powerful melisma. It runs out of steam long before we get to the Linda Perry songs (‘Beautiful’ and a weird version of Sugababes’ ‘Overload’ called ‘Makeover’), and eventually just feels like overkill. It’s 77 minutes long; needed a more disciplined edit.
Fatboy Slim, ‘You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby’
Pretty much the definitive album of 1998, Fatboy seemed to have the Midas touch at the time: everything off this album went top 10, his Cornershop remix went to Number One, ‘Renegade Master’ went to Number Three… This album is as good as the hooks, meaning that the singles all sound ace while dross like ‘Kalifornia’ and ‘Fucking In Heaven’ does not. Twenty years removed from its omnipresence, the big beat everything-in-blender sound does sound pretty cool, and it makes a convincing argument for sampler as lead instrument.
Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ was one of the best albums of 1998, and on the follow-up she continues to work with that album’s key collaborator William Orbit, while adding French techno producer Mirwais. Unsurprisingly, it follows a similar path to ‘Ray of Light’, with the exception of the Mr Oizo-ish title track, but adds acoustic guitar and vocoder. ‘Don’t Tell Me’ particularly sounds pretty good, with its cut up acoustic guitar attached to a rhythm that would probably be described as a trap beat now. The album’s good; it benefits from a brevity that a lot of this week’s albums lack.
Britney Spears, ‘…Baby One More Time’
Britney came to international attention with the great title track, a classic pop song written by ace Swedish composer Max Martin. ‘Baby One More Time’ is the opener here, setting a standard that the rest of the album inevitably struggles to reach. It vacillates between good power-pop (‘Crazy’, the surprisingly strong ‘Born To Make You Happy’), wet ballads (‘Sometimes’) and fluff (‘Soda Pop’ and so on). The album finishes with its two weirdest tracks: a naff “40 year old men try and write about what’s cool” ballad called ‘E-mail My Heart’ and a straight cover of The All Seeing I’s ‘The Beat Goes On’ produced by, uh, The All Seeing I. Britney’s fantastic singles catalogue is always worth a listen but this album goes out of your head as soon as it stops.
Justin Timberlake, ‘Justified’
On the other side of the Britney’n’Justin relationship is this album, which turned heads at the time for its spiteful break-up song ‘Cry Me A River’. The singles were mostly lent their personality by the vocal ad-libs, mumbling and vocal percussion: the album’s most distinctive feature. Otherwise it mostly sounds like an album by the producers rather than the performer: at the time the world’s hottest producers, the Neptunes and Timbaland just create their usual tracks (also the album’s three songs too long, another Neptunian habit). A respectable move into adult pop, the album was so well received that the curly-haired moppet from N-Sync seemed like a different person.
TLC’s breakthrough album features two of their best known singles: ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘Creep’, and is a killer combination of soul, R&B and pop, largely produced by Puff Daddy (who stays out of the way for the most part) and includes some fluid rapping from Left Eye (all too rarely around due to rehab). A template for later girl groups like All Saints to adapt, the album’s only failing is the forgettable material on the second half, which not even a spirited cameo by Busta Rhymes can elevate.
Amy Winehouse, ‘Frank’
Almost certainly replaced in later editions of the 1001 book by ‘Back to Black’, Winehouse’s charismatic sound fuses jazz-infused melodies and chords with a cool urban attitude and lyrical stance which feels authentic in a way almost unique to her. The most interesting songs on here come when she mixes that sound with breakbeats (‘Help Yourself’, ‘In My Bed’): a lot of the rest of the album is sparsely arranged around just her voice and (her own?) electric guitar. Winehouse’s turbulent personal life occupied the headlines for almost the entirety of her life, but it was her talent that got her there in the first place; that talent is amply demonstrated here.
Next week: Going back slightly further in time, we’ll take a look at some of the top American rock albums of the late 80s/early 90s. Don’t call it a grunge week.
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