Saturday, August 20, 2011

Favourite Albums of the Noughties - #1

#1 Tanya Chua 蔡健雅 - Goodbye and Hello (2007)

A bit of history on Tanya: She first emerged on the English music scene in Singapore as a rocker-type singer-songwriter in 1997. Two years later, she released her first Chinese album, where she had to read lyrics phonetically. She met with middling success with her first three albums, as there was some incongruity with her music and her image, which meant that the Taiwanese audience just didn't take to her. It was only at a new label, Warner, when she released 陌生人 (Stranger), that she found her niche --> singing songs of love and heartbreak from the point of view of a intelligent and sensitive urban woman.  There's a certain modern quality to her voice (something I find all Singaporean singers possess) that enables her to connect to both lyrics about surviving in the harsh coldness of cities like Taipei and the struggle to find meaningful contact when you're one soul amidst a million strangers. But there was still something missing in spire of the commercial and critical success Tanya found: She's a songwriter by nature, and due to her weakness in Chinese, she was often getting songs written for her. It wasn't exactly her own voice that she was expressing then.

That changed with 2007's Goodbye and Hello, which I really do believe is a landmark album is the Mandopop world. It had been two years or more since Tanya had released new music, and she had decided in that time to relocate to Taipei so she could improve her Chinese. And unfortunately, she also experienced the tearful end of a relationship. Drawing from her pain, Tanya for the first time ever wrote her own Chinese lyrics - a far cry form the days when she could only read hanyu pinyin. She also took the new role of album executive producer. The result is a soulful rumination of love and loss in the city. Tanya's lyrics were not, and probably won't ever be, as poetic as those of lyricists like Vincent Fang (
方文山), but in their simplicity and stark honesty, she lays bare her emotions, and it is moving and beautiful. There are songs of pure pain, such as the piano-led 空白格 (Empty Space), which is sparse in its arrangement but so evocative and haunting. It's not just all about breaking out the hankies too, as Tanya also sings about the lessons one can learn from failed relationships and move one, like the feisty title track.

The album opens with 达尔文 (Darwin), which talks about how we evolve to become better humans with each failed relationship. The arrangement is gentle, with soft guitar strumming. It's as if she's consoling herself by telling herself how said evolution is good, even though she's still hurting. Goodbye and Hello closes with the same track, except it's now called Darwin II (The Evolved Version). The arrangement is quirkier, brighter. You can imagine her singing this with a wistful smile as she looks back at the past, ready, and importantly, able, to move on.

Goodbye and Hello is my album of the decade.

Stunning song. Gorgeous video. Also a great example of how you don't need big budgets to make beautiful works of art.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Favourite Albums of the Noughties - #2

#2 Britney Spears - Blackout (2007)

I've always maintained to everyone who asks that I love Britney in a completely non-ironic way. I genuinely believe that she's released some pop classics in her career. Singles like Baby, One More Time, I'm a Slave 4 U and Toxic are as good as anything any indie band-of-the-moment can produce. The only problem was that Brit was one those artists inflicted with filler-itis I'd talked about earlier (Youtube Dear Diary from her Oops... I Did It Again! album for an example). Things improved with 03's In the Zone, which was chockfull of radio-ready hits, but it lacked a cohesive sound. In fact, it was anything but cohesive. Dance pop, hiphop, electronica, balladeering, jamaican dancehall - the album was japalang, as Singaporeans would say. Between '03 and '07 came and left K-Fed, a poorly promoted Greatest Hits package, two babies and of course, the unraveling of Britney, all of which culminated in that infamous shot of bald Brit wielding an umbrella against a paparazzo's car.

It was in the midst of her personal turmoil that Blackout was released in the fall of '07. The Danja-produced Gimme More came first. She opened the VMAs that year with this song, and it was a disaster of a performance that she sleepwalked through, a performance that is now iconic, but not for the right reasons. The video was a mess too, especially for Britney, who had always been a great video artist previously. But these misfires cannot take away the brilliance of the song, which is as club-worthy as any first single club banger should be, and as irresistibly sleazy and dark.  "Gimme gimme more," she purrs. It's dumb, repetitive lyrics that pop culture commentators can have a field day interpreting --> Britney's addiction to fame? The paparazzi's hunger for her? The public's fascination for building up and tearing down celebs? Whatever it is, it added an intriguing quality to an already addictive song.

This time around, with Danja taking on a huge chunk of production duties, Blackout had a cohesive sound through and through - edgy urban dance pop. Not a ballad in sight. Second single Piece of Me was yet another amazing meta-Britney moment, even if it wasn't self-penned. Follow-up Break the Ice was the piece de resistance. 'It's been a while. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, but I'm here now," she coos at the start of this Danja production. Such a perfect opening for a comeback first single. If only, you know, she was sane and all.

Recorded during her second pregnancy, Blackout was undoubtedly a producer's album. You can hardly discern Britney's voice throughout the album, what with all the autotune, vocodering and other various effects her voice is put through in the tracks. Even when you can actually hear her, you can feel that she wasn't all that 'there' during the recording process. There's also nearly zero introspection in the album, which you'd expect from a post-divorce album (the nearest she comes is an oblique reference in the album closer, Why Should I Be Sad). It's party time all album long, and almost like she said, "Screw this," popped an ecstasy pill or two, and danced away.

All of these factors combines to produce a feeling of detachment and discombobulation that the album evokes. This somehow works, giving Blackout the cold, cool feel utterly perfect for the modern urban sound. Blackout's about an impersonal an album as you can get, but it's also pretty darn close to pop perfection. 

             This scorcher of a song deserved a much better video... :(

Friday, August 5, 2011

Favourite Albums of the Noughties - #3

#3 Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)

You can probably discern from my postings that I'm quite a mainstream pop fan. Radiohead was one of those bands that I knew was pretty much at the top of the credibility mountain. I know their songs of course. There was the early guitar-band sounds of "High and Dry" or "Creep", and then the band progressed with the critically acclaimed OK Computer, which I bought and from which I loved "Karma Police" the most. But then they went left-field starting with Amnesiac and bye went their accessibility factor. From "Creep" to "Idioteque" - talk about evolution.

After a mini four-year hiatus, In Rainbows was released in '07 amidst great flurry, though not actually for its content. Rather, Radiohead made headlines for the way it chose to distribute the album, making it available for download on its official website for free (sorta. Fans could pay any price they wanted). Possible industry-redefining move? Not quite, as we're seeing in hindsight. Cynical attempt to grab headlines after a lull? Hardly, when the music could more than speak for itself. Nonetheless, this move, marketing ploy or not, worked a treat in restating Radiohead's commercial credentials, as In Rainbows opened strong on both sides of the Atlantic, no doubt spurred on by four years of pent-up demand.

In Rainbows' commercial success was warranted for sure, as the album was actually a return to form. Gone was the indulgence of Hail to the Thief, to be replaced by accessibility, without sacrificing artistry. There were melodies (!) and energy to be found in tracks like "Jigsaw Falling Into Place" and "Bodysnatchers". "Nude" and "Videotape" provide those trademark Thom Yorke haunting vocals and moody, evocative instrumentation fit for a David Lynch movie soundtrack. And then there's my personal favorite, "All I Need". Just a beautiful, moving melody, low-key production and Yorke's soaring falsetto towards the end - sublime.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Entertainment 2010

Just for posterity: The list of movies/books I watched/read for leisure in 2010.

The Road
Youth in Revolt
The Hurt Locker
Up in the Air
When in Rome
A Single Man
Ashes of Time
An Education
It's Complicated
A Serious Man
Shutter Island
Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief
Iron Man 2
Toy Story 3
Inception (x2)
Berlin '36
Food Inc.
The Corporation
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Green Zone
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I
The Kids are All Right
Easy A
Grown Ups
Twilight: Eclipse (on a flight! I love watching brainless stuff on flights!)
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Eat, Pray, Love
Knight and Day
Sex and the City 2
Capitalism: A Love Story
The Social Network
The Tourist
Tron: Legacy

Favourite of the year: Inception (blockbuster as it should always be done)

Special 'Where did it all go wrong' Award: Michael Cera. Poor George Michael. Jesse Eisenberg used to be mistaken for him. But soon he will be the one people mistake for soon-to-be Oscar-nominated Eisenberg. Cera gave strong, and pretty diverse (imo) performances in Youth In Revolt and Scott Pilgrim (which were both at the very least decent films) but still gets panned for doing the same shtick. Plus, both films sadly flopped. What next? Maybe that long-awaited Arrested Development movie will revive his career.

Books (on top of the dozens for school of course):
Alan Hollinghurst - The Swimming-Pool Library
J.D. Salinger - Franny & Zooey
Alan Hollinghurst - The Folding Star
Josh-Kilmer Purcell - I am Not Myself These Days
Roddy Doyle - Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
Alan Hollinghurst - The Line of Beauty

Yes, Hollinghurst propels himself into the list of my favourite authors! Simply brilliant. Franny & Zooey was wonderful as well.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Singles Selection of 2010

I gotta admit I really slacked off on investigating new music in 2010, and instead went the nostalgic route and often revisited favourites from decades past. Seeking comfort in the familiar when in a foreign land, definitely. Of course, I still managed to listen to some new music, and I decided to throw together a list of my favourite singles of 2010.

蔡依林 - 无言以对

Jolin does American R&B? Sign me up! Before she hit the big big time with 看我72变, Jolin in fact pumped out quite a few R&B-lite tunes, which I think she has a flair for, because she's got a good sense of rhythm with her singing. This is what she should be doing more, instead of the tired Ah-Lian dance pop numbers. 

Take That - The Flood

Robbie's back and takes up a huge chunk of vocal responsibility immediately. Not sure how I feel about that, but I know for sure The Flood is top-notch balladeering, with an urgent and soaring chorus that just builds and builds. Epic! With great vocal harmonies, and some metaphorical mumbo-jumbo lyrics about "learning how to dance the rain" (probably about the band's evolution since its inception), this song is as good as any from the band's 90s heyday.  

Marina & the Diamonds - Oh No!

Forget Ke$ha and Katy Perry, Marina is the triumphant pop story of the year! Interesting look, strong voice, quirky lyrics (that she writes herself), strong hooks aplenty - there's nothing not to love here! This song never fails to perk me up! Marina's definitely the best of the batch of 'quirky' Brit pop gals like Ellie Goulding and Pixie Lott. Do investigate!

林俊杰 - 她说

I was immediately predisposed to liking the song when I learned that the lyrics were written by all-time fav, Stefanie Sun, but 她说 is a really great traditional Mandopop piano-driven ballad. And I love the lyrics too! Well done, Stef! Also love the little piano refrain from 记得 after the first chorus. I had a period in November when I was listening to JJ constantly on my commute to my internship, and this song was a regular guest on that play list. Great melancholic sing along on the walk to the train station haha.

Kylie Minogue  - All the Lovers

I think if there were to be an aural representation of words like 'bliss' and 'joy', this song would be it. Seriously, this song radiates positivity. Kylie softens her already girlish vocals, and she caresses the lyrics of the song in such an intimate, lush fashion I feel that she is singing/whispering directly to me. The Stuart Price production is brilliant too, especially the breakdown before the final chorus. It is pure, well, joy indeed (minor flaw: the breakdown is so great that there should've been an extended one for the album version of the song). Oh and the video is simply amazing too
Robyn - Dancing on My Own

Continuing on the path forged by 2007's With Every Heartbeat, Dancing On My Own is another melancholic lyrics set to a throbbing electropop beat-type song. If it ain't broke and all... And no one does painful yearning quite like Robyn. And the wonderful plinky electronica bits really sets off her wonderful, emotional vocals - sorta a juxtaposition of human frailty and digital cool. A perfect heartbreak song for this millennial era. And it's also my single of the year.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Favourite Albums of the Noughties Pt. 1

I'm a bit late in compiling my list of the best of the decade, so sorry to my audience of five (though technically, the decade begins with '01 and ends with '10, so I'm in fact early!). Looking back in 10 or 100 years from now, I'm sure that music historians would locate the death of the album to sometime this decade. Consumers, aided by the digitisation of music and the MP3 revolution, altered their behaviour, forgoing album-purchasing in favour of buying individual tracks,, which have been mostly done on the innocuously-termed store we know as Itunes. A whole generation of music lovers has come of age understanding only the instant gratification model of downloading the latest tracks, the singles, the hits. That's not to mention those who've grown up simply obtaining their music through illegal downloads, which dramatically changes their perception of the value of music and that has consequences that will not be addressed here. In sum then, the idea of an album, one with a cohesive concept from start to finish from the recording to the album art, has in this decade begun its slide into irrelevance, methinks.

I'm certainly no different from the type of people whom I've described above. Like them, I've been afflicted with "shuffle mode-itis", and my attention span's gotten shorter such that I rarely play albums from start to finish nowadays. The probably also speaks to the quality of music that's been put out in the recent past, with complacent record companies concerned with producing only 2-3 hit singles per album, then slapping on 7-8 disposable fillers and calling it a day. Who would listen to an entire album then, when you could simply shuffle between hits from your favourite one-hit wonders.

The point of my insanely long preamble, then, is that in today's ADHD world of music listening, an album that can sustain your interest from beginning to end must indeed be something quite special. I've narrowed down my list of albums of the decade to 5, all of which have been, at one time or another, albums that I've played repeatedly, and which still holds my attention from the first track to the last as I went back to re-listen to various albums to come up with this list. They'll not be to everybody's tastes obviously, but I do genuinely believe that there is objective merit to be found in each that no one can not appreciate.

Firstly, here's some of the albums that just missed the cut of my Top 5 of the Decade:

Stefanie Sun - 孙燕姿 (Stefanie Sun) (2000)
Singapore's biggest star (arguably?) emerged the summer of 2000, proving an instant hit in the Mandopop capital of Taiwan, and justifiably so. Her distinct, vibrato-free vocals, coupled with the words and music of local maestros Wei Song/ Si Song, produced classics like 天黑黑 and 超快感. Millions fell in love with Yan Zi at first sight (or sound, rather), and I was one of them.

Kelly Clarkson - Breakway (2004)
For a 13 month stretch between 2004/05, Kelly Clarkson ruled the world, much like how Gaga is the zeitgeist of the scene now. The run of Breakway-Since You Been Gone-Behind These Hazel Eyes-Because of You-Walkaway must be one of the strongest single runs in recent memory (Again, probably only Gaga with Just Dance-Poker Face-Love Game-Paparazzi-Bad Romance-Telephone-Alejandro can top this, and she accomplished this only with a re-release). We know all these hits, and amazingly, more can be found on the album. Would it be blashemy to say that this is Thriller/Rhythm Nation 1814-like in that almost all songs are single-worthy? This is pop-rock at its finest.

Robin Thicke - The Evolution of Robin Thicke (2006)

There are some records that will sound better live. This is not one of those. Thicke always struggles with his trademark falsettos live, but on record, his voice is gloriously smooth and slick, and this entire album is one groovy ride, without being melodically dull. Guests like Lil' Wayne and Pharell add some amazing hip-hop bite. Thicke has consistently been my go-to guy for R&B music since this album.

Jolin Tsai - 舞娘 (Dancing Diva) (2006)
Jolin's an unabashedly commercial artist, with no pretense of artistry. Often, her music comes off as cheesy, or in Singapore-speak, lian/beng-ish (the closest equivalent is probably music for chavs), but, for just one album, everything fell into place. 舞娘 is still as commercial as they come, but there's a certain epic quality to the formula, having been refined to perfection. This was a pop star at the top of her game.


Antony and the Johnsons - I am a Bird Now (2005)
I had never heard anything from Antony Hegarty before this, so it was a strangely disconcerting feeling the first time I listened to his voice, so fragile it's almost cry-like. But quickly, that amazingly unique voice, coupled with his beautiful lyrics (on gender identity), begins to haunt you. Gets minus points because it is a tad too depressing.

Up next: Album #3 in my Top 3 of the decade.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Holy Pilgrimage Pt. II

Pt. I of my post on the visit to Old Trafford was a straight-up chronicle of events, and can be found here. This one is about my post-visit observations/reflections.

On the bench!!
1. Consumerism runs amok. After the match, approximately 34539 people squeezed their way into the Megastore. There was actually security personnel who had to perform crowd control, limiting the flow of people into the store. The crowd formed a massive, uncoordinated bloc that waitd outside the entrance, as the store was already bursting with people. They need a Ginomostore, not a Mega-one, methinks. The crowd situation made me wonder if it'd be as crazy if United had lost. Sure, tourists like me would probably still venture in, but I'd guess that regulars might not feel quite as inclined to entertain their kids' requests for that United scrabble set. We're more likely to splash out the cash when we're in a good mood obviously. This really highlights the importance of United maintaining their winning ways given their massive debt: It's not just Champions League earnings, but also merchandise sales, that will be affected.

Dawn of the Dead comes to life
2. The match itself will not be making it into the hall of classics anytime. Both teams played averagely, with many sloppy passes made. In fact, I was kinda shocked at how casual players looked when pinging those passes. Making it look easy, sure, but I still found it slightly disconcerting how unbothered they looked. Both sides had few clear-cut chances at goal, with most of the match being played in midfield and both teams struggled to string passes together.

3. C'est triste que I missed WR10 in action, but I am very thankful to have been able to catch United legends Giggsy and Scholesy in action. Scholes, in particular, was on form that day, and seeing him do his thing in the centre of the park, committing those "oops isn't it cute how he still doesn't know how to tackle" fouls was pure joy.

4. Poor Berbatov. He didn't do well that day, but he didn't fare that badly either. But, every time h got the ball, you could seriously feel the weight of the pressure/expectation the crowd was putting on him. Every time he messed up yet another good scoring opportunity, the collective groan from the stands got louder and ever more frustrated.

Giggsy about to score from the spot.
5. Speaking of disappointments, Michael Carrick was another who faced the crowd's wrath. Underperforming the entire season, Carrick exemplified the whole 'couldn't care less' attitude I described earlier. "Take your time, son", I remember a disgruntled fan in my vicinity shouting. And he would.... only to misplace his pass. Shape up, or ship out, Mister!

6. Nani - Ah, aren't we glad for his revelatory form in the second half of the season. In an uninspiring team performance, it was obvious that Nani was the spark of the squa, the one who proverbially 'made things happen'. Still no Ronaldo, but we'll all be expecting greater and better things to come from him this coming season.

7. Last note on the United squad -- Just want to pay tribute to Evra. Seriously, best left-back in the world (maybe not when playing for La France). ♥

8. Spurs note: Crouch does win those headers, doesn't he? And Gareth Bale was definitely the Nani equivalent for them.

Last chance you were able to hi-five that day! hah!
9. It's sad but I have to confirm that the away crowd is indeed more enthusiastic in their singing/cheering. I think that's the way it is everywhere though. And WC and I sadly were also part of the much maligned prawn sandwich crowd since I didn't know any of the songs and couldn't take part in the singing. *ashamed*

10. On to general thoughts: Attending a football match is nowadays a very wholesome event. Besides the alcohol ban, I was most impressed by how disabled-friendly the club is. There's a big section right at the corner between the East and South ends reserved for fans on wheelchairs, and there's a big MUFC Disabled Supporters' Club, which has its own publicity board inside the stadium. Also, they have a designated hangout area on their own termed the 'Ability Suite'. A big too obvious or cheesy to some perhaps, but I thought it to be a great message.

Also, that day coincided with the anniversary of the Disabled Supporters' Assocation, so that was a 3 on 3 match between some mentally handicapped Spurs and United kids during halftime. I smiled when I head someone near me say "Cone on lads, we're United, we wanna win everything." We lost 1-7 though. Oops.

It's 20LEGEND! O.G. Solskjaer, Reserves manager, leads the squad out to collect their trophy for finishing top of the Northern half of the Reserves League before the match.
11. And finally, another way match-attending is wholesome is how it is very much a family affair. All throughout the stands, there were numerous father-son attendees, including fathers with adorable, excitable children, dads with their teenage lads who might be too cool and slightly embarrassed to hang out with their parental units, and grey-haired men with their grown-up sons. I could easily imagine generations of fans attending United games - Dad brings son brings grandson and so the tradition passes on. Saturaday afternoons would be that special bonding time between father-son as they share the elation of a victory, or the despair of a loss. And eventually, such Saturdays would become amazing, shared memories. I can almost picture a Kodak commercial based on this. NGL, I felt a twinge of envy/sadness seeing these scenes of familial bonding, knowing I never had a decent dad with whom I had memories of joyful experiences. (Sorry, woe-is-me attitude henceforth ceases!)

That is why after the match, this thought came to my mind: maybe Manchester United is too big of an institution today. United is as grand and majestic as football stadiums come, but I couldn't help but envision this rosy, idealised picture of father/son attending their local club's match, where every one's voice mattered, since one's absence wouldn't simply be filled by the next football tourist. Seems like that'd be a more authentic experience, for a lack of a better description. The grandiosity and commercialism of MUFC, exemplified for example by the way the megastore is run like a well-oiled machine and by how skyrocketing season ticket prices are hurting middle/working-class football families, takes away the soul from the experience, this overthinking fan believes.

Farewell to thee, Old Trafford... I will be back!