Archive for December, 2009

ALBUM REVIEW: Mika Nakashima – “Best” (2005)

December 5, 2009
Picture temporarily removed…sorry 😦

Genres: J-Pop, International, Adult Contemporary, Easy Listening, Jazz, Rock, New Age

Tracklist

1. Amazing Grace (’05)

2. Stars (New Vocal ’05)

3. Crescent Moon

4. Will (Original Version)

5. Resistance (Original Version)

6. Aishiteru (Original Version)

7. Love Addict

8. Find the Way

9. Yuki no Hana

10. Seven

11. Oborozukiyo~Inori (with Taro Hakase)

12. Legend (Main Version)

13. Sakurairo Maukoro

14. Glamorous Sky (with Hyde)

Best is Mika Nakashima’s 6th album and her very first Greatest Hits album. Released on December 7, 2005, it topped the Oricon 200 and has since sold 1,204,996 copies – thus making it Mika’s second most popular album after Love being the first.

Best most definitely proves that Mika is one of the best artists ever to step into the music industry, distinguishing herself from other J-music artists thanks to her classy, elegant brand of pop music which would eventually incorporate softer commercial J-music elements. Its 14 songs include 13 singles, which registered the highest chart positions on the Oricon Singles Chart and at the same time sold the most copies, and a re-recording of “Amazing Grace.”

“Amazing Grace (’05)” is a rearrangement of the first song from Mika’s True album; this new version focuses solely on a jazzy piano arrangement. Mika’s English pronunciation doesn’t show too many signs of improvement on this version, but her performance is rather touching on this version. While still not up to par with other renditions I’ve heard of this hymn, Mika’s efforts deserve some merit nevertheless. (NOTE: This song was never commercially released as a single, but this version was made as a radio-only promo single for Suntory’s Freixnet Champagne brand. Suntory is a Japanese alcoholic beverage company, and opera singer Andrea Bocelli did one ad for Suntory Beer with his single, “Canto della Terra,” in the background.)

“Stars (New Vocal ’05)” has completely different lead and background vocals from the original 2001 version and the 2002 Album Version on True. The arrangement is exactly the same but Mika’s vocals sound so much better this time around. Possibly the best version of the song she did to date. Well done, Mika!

“Crescent Moon” is still a fantastic song. Some people may think that it might have seemed useless to place it after “Stars,” but since the whole intention of the album was to showcase Mika’s highest-charting and at the same time best-selling singles, it was a smart move on Sony Music Associated Records’ behalf to do so. After all, the single did sell all of its 100,000 copies when it came out, and as I mentioned in my review of Mika’s True album, the Latin percussion and violins show why it has a greater hint of sophistication than almost any disco tune ever made.

“Will,” Mika’s 5th single, is shown here in its original 5:23-long version, not the 5:30-long Album Version from True. The piano, strings, and other acoustic features of the song bring a whole new concept to the genre of “easy listening.” It’s everything you can expect from what we call a “power ballad,” but with a much greater arrangement and a touching aftermath that’s guaranteed to leave plenty of sentiment with listeners after it’s ended.

“Resistance” follows, but in its original Album Version from the EP of the same name. The Mary J. Blige/Brandy influence is still there, but then so is the stylish sophistication brought on by the horns. Meanwhile, Mika brings the song’s subject of angels in love to life amidst the prominent heavy electric bass and the hip-hop beat.

“Aishiteru” (I Love You) begins with a lighter piano solo than the Album Version on Love (the version here is the Original Version), and the strings come into play, showcasing the romantic, elegant mood of the song throughout. Billed as a “St. Valentine EP for the Lovers” (the single was released in January 2003), Mika’s soft, sentimental singing is the highlight of this ballad, whose bass beats sound almost exactly like that from the late Notorious B.I.G.’s “Can’t You See,” with Total! My favorite part of the song is the end chorus, which goes “Do it. Joy to love. Love me. Let it snow…”

The next three tracks appear here in their unaltered versions just as they did on the Love album. “Love Addict” goes by faster than its 7 minutes and 15 seconds may imply, largely due to its sophisticated club jazz arrangement and the overall mood of its syncopated rhythm. “Find the Way” continues to hit me deep thanks to its elegant and poignant string-and-piano arrangement; and “Yuki no Hana” does the same thing…only deeper.

“Seven,” taken from Music, is a real energy drink all in one. The way the song begins with blaring horns and a funky piano-drum sound with a George Benson appeal and stays that way until the end of the song, blows everything by Ricky Martin, J. Lo, Shakira, etc. out of the water!

“Oborozukiyo~Inori,” performed with Taro Hakase on violin, follows on from the previous song with its luxurious techno-based arrangement, drawing on traditional Japanese folk music. The koto, the guitars, and Taro’s violin solos – when paired with Mika’s simple yet delicate singing – create an atmosphere of beauty and elegance that very few other artists emerging since the mid-1990s have done.

“Legend” appears next as the Main Version, not the Original Version. Its techno sound might not be the best way to follow on from “Oborozukiyo~Inori,” but it’s a wonderfully performed enigmatic track with bittersweet vocals from Mika.

“Sakurairo Maukoro” didn’t make this album for no reason. Despite being the second most popular single from Music only to “Seven” chart-wise, it became the best-selling single from that album, and the proof is in the pudding. The piano gracefully opens the song, and Mika sings in her trademark serene manner while the piano and strings gracefully provide romance and style to the theme of the cherry blossom, one of Japan’s symbolic flowers.

Then, finally, we have “Glamorous Sky,” which was the theme for Ms. Nakashima’s second motion picture appearance, Nana, in which she played her first lead role: that of the title character. Her film debut came with Worst by Chance in 2003, but she played the co-star. Nana brought her even more fans than she already had, but it was this song that transformed her personality as an Ingénue into a versatile diva in much the same vein that Sarah Brightman is. “Glamorous Sky” was Mika’s only #1 hit to date, but it soars brilliantly with thoughtful lyrics from Hyde (of L’arc~en~Ciel – he would later sing the song in full English), a simplistic uptempo punk sound, and ambient electric guitars. All the while, Mika flows into the song immediately, and the background arrangement doesn’t seem to swamp her voice.

This album’s follow-up, The End (her soundtrack album for the Nana franchise), would include songs that sometimes sounded terrific, sometimes put too much demand on Mika’s voice, and everything in between, but except for some minor flaws, this compilation is a highly demonstrative showcase of talent coming from an artist whose taste in musical style, fashion, and attitude make her better than most of the pop stars, who instead of making catchy dance tunes that leave a lasting impression do nothing but sell out, so to speak. Mika Nakashima is one of those artists who stand on their own.

Pros: Wonderful compilation!

Cons: None, but “Amazing Grace (’05)” should have been replaced with a bonus track or a B-side or even a new song, of which none appear here. This is the factor for which No More Rules would make up four years later.

Bottom Line: Worth the buy for Mika fans and those newcomers who want a taste of what Mika has to offer. At least Sony Music didn’t do the stupid task of putting Radio Edits or remixes of Mika’s songs on here.

Final Grade: A.

YesAsia link

ALBUM REVIEW: Mika Nakashima – “Music” (2005)

December 5, 2009
Picture temporarily removed…sorry 😦

Tracklist:

1. Sakurairo Maukoro

2. Oborozukiyo~Inori

3. Hi no Tori

4. Kumo no Ito

5. Rocking Horse

6. Carrot & Whip

7. Shadows of You

8. Legend (Main Version)

9. Hemurokku

10. Seven

11. Fake

12. Fed Up

13. Hitori

Music is Mika Nakashima’s 5th album. It peaked at #1 on the Oricon 200 Album Chart in Japan and has sold 547,138 copies since its release on March 9, 2005.

After the commercial success of Love and the crossover acclaim of Oborozukiyo~Inori, Mika Nakashima followed on from the popularity of those two albums and its predecessors (True and Resistance) to release her third main album, Music. This time around, Mika expands her horizons and explores a much wider range of genres than any of her previous four albums, but continues to maintain her grown-up attitude.

“Sakurairo Maukoro” (When the Cherry Blossom Colors Dance), which leads off the album, is a gorgeous spring ballad about separation and reunion underneath cherry blossom trees. Mika plays the piano in the video, but not in the song. Nevertheless, her vocals are pristine and angelic, and the background music is unique, with glossy violins, ascending harp glissandos, and the piano itself setting an elegant mood.

“Oborozukiyo~Inori” (A Misty, Moonlit Night~Prayer), the same song that appeared on Mika’s previous mini-album of the same name, is one of Mika’s first attempts at a techno-influenced song (dubbed “electro” in Japan). The Japanese koto and Taro Hakase’s beautifully done violin solos pay homage to traditional Japanese folk songs, but with a modern touch (“Oborozukiyo” itself was a Japanese folk song; “Inori” is a fresh composition from Mika and Taro).

The next track, “Hi no Tori” (Phoenix), is a techno-easy listening ballad with a luxurious arrangement that has “adult contemporary” written all over it. Also the theme from the Japanese animated series of the same name, the song has one of the best melodies out of all the songs chosen for the album…it sounds heavily Latin-flavored, and the video for the song fits the theme of the song very well. Mika sings the song in such an elegant way that I don’t blame Mika fans for saying this was one of their favorite songs from her. It was terribly unsuccessful sales-wise compared to four other singles from the album, though.

“Kumo no Ito” (Spider Web), whose lyrics are based on an early-1910s poem of the same name, begins with an atmospheric pattern of descending chromatic chords that smoothly lead into the first verse. This song has great vocals from Mika and a flowing electronica arrangement that would’ve made it suitable for airplay on one of XM Satellite Radio’s “Lifestyle” channels!

“Rocking Horse” changes the tempo of the album with a sophisticated 70s-soft rock sound a la Blood, Sweat, and Tears. This song is about life struggles (“No job, no education – oh my God I’ve fed up myself”), but the jazzy mood is so cheerful that it actually forgets about its own storyline! The track that follows, “Carrot & Whip,” is an even more charming jazz song with a cute horn solo in between verses and at the end of the song.

“Shadows of You” is a midtempo ballad with some potential, but the melody doesn’t stand out among the more hit-potential numbers here, so forget this song. “Legend” is fantastic. Its electro-based arrangement (complete with a harp) is stylish, even though I think the Latin-flavored Original Version of the song is much better.

“Hemurokku (Hemlock)” continues the upbeat trend of the album with an arrangement comprised of strings, guitars, and glamorous harmonic vocals from Mika and her background singers. The song is so very much like the Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” but the feel of the music is much funkier. “Seven,” the first single released for the album, makes listeners want to get up off their feet and dance in two seconds. Its jazzy influence brings to mind “Love Addict,” from Mika’s Love album, but with a heavier Latin flavor and gorgeous trumpet stabs at the very end. “I shout for you…”

“Fake” slows down the tempo with a simple, yet sensual, late-night jazz arrangement. The piano is one of the most prominent instruments here, along with the sax solo. Mika delivers her lines like a true torch singer, and the lyrics also kept me interested. Billie Holiday would be proud.

“Fed Up” is the first time Mika ever attempted a rock sound in her music before all the “NANA” stuff. The piano and violins are heard throughout the song, and some radical electric guitar bursts allow Mika to tell her audience: “I’m fed up with being trapped in my cocoon, so I’m gonna spread my wings like a butterfly!” I hear ya, girl! And your singing brought serious depth into this long, but endearing, symphonic rock ballad!

“Hitori” (Alone) closes the album in the same manner in which it began: exquisite. It places plenty of emphasis on the piano and the string ensemble, and the melody is probably the most poignant melody I ever heard by any artist anywhere. Not to say there are no other contenders, but the song’s lyrics are extremely painful (“Even now, I can’t forget you”), and Mika brings out the extreme sadness of the song in the most intense way. This song gets my two thumbs up (like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would).

Music might drag on sometimes, but its arrangements are amazing, and the choice of genres sure beats the monotony of teenybopper music. With all the teen trash I continue to have to deal with (a neighbor was playing very hard pop music as I wrote this review), albums like this give me the assurance that artists like Mika are a breath of fresh air.

Pros: Smooth production; great vocal performances; solid arrangements; and great range of genres make this album a winner.

Cons: Only “Shadows of You” weighs things down.

Bottom Line: If you love easy listening, you’ll very much enjoy this album. It and its follow-up, Best, were in my opinion the best albums released in 2005.

Final Grade: A.

YesAsia link

My Thoughts on the Grammys

December 4, 2009

This year, Beyoncé Knowles (formerly of the now disbanded Destiny’s Child), Lady GaGa, the Black Eyed Peas, the Kings of Leon, and Taylor Swift dominate the 52nd Annual Grammy Nominations List. Fan favorite Beyoncé leads the pack with 10 nominations, among them Album of the Year (I Am…Sasha Fierce), Song of the Year (“Single Ladies”), and Record of the Year (“Halo”). Ms. Swift has 8 nods; her album Fearless is also nominated for Album of the Year. How do you think I feel about these nominations?

To be honest, my feelings are fairly in-between.

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t have anything against people getting nominated for and winning Grammys. However, I truly feel that the Grammys do everything in their power to reward numerical or commercial achievements and not as much, with some exceptions, to bring artistic achievements to the public’s attention. Awards ceremonies like the American Music Awards and even the World Music Awards act the same way, but at least the World Music Awards honor some artists that are better than a lot of mainstream America’s artists (at least since the teen pop resurgence of 1996-97). There’s nothing wrong with having a #1 album or single, but I’ve read about several musical artists that made wonderfully experimental and popular albums that didn’t even earn one Grammy nomination for the respective band or artist, let alone win one. (I won’t bring up categories like jazz, Latin jazz, classical, etc., as they have nothing to do with this.)

One of the most obvious examples of an album and artist that won critical and public success and yet didn’t win a Grammy is the British rock group Pink Floyd, with their 1973 masterwork, Dark Side of the Moon. Ranked as the second best album of all time on the Definitive 200 Albums List after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the incomparable Beatles (which deserved the four wins out of the seven Grammy nominations it had in 1968), Dark Side of the Moon has a string of complex rhythms and mystical ambient sounds that might have not sit well with most listeners, but amazed me after the first listen (and that coming from a woman who listens to genres like Latin jazz, easy listening, regular jazz, some popular music, a good deal of New Age and world music, and Motown R&B, but not teenybopper music)! It topped the Billboard 200 Album Chart and has since sold 15 million copies in the United States alone, but Pink Floyd didn’t win a Grammy until 1995, for the song ‘Marooned’ from the Division Bell album.

Bob Marley had a great range of reggae songs with political and inspirational messages, and yet his music didn’t win him a Grammy in his lifetime. He posthumously earned a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001 and was inducted into the 2007 Grammy Hall of Fame. (This doesn’t mean that Billy Joel and the Carpenters neccessarily sucked, which they don’t.) Marvin Gaye didn’t earn a Grammy for songs like “Let’s Get It On,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” and my personal favorite: “What’s Going On.” However, he won two Grammys for “Sexual Healing” in 1982 and a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award years later. Elvis Presley? I love his rock and roll music to death, and yet he won four Grammys: three for his later religious-themed material, and the Lifetime Achievement Award.Santana won only one Grammy before he signed to Arista Records from Sony/Columbia in the late 1990s. That was a Grammy Hall of Fame entry for the Abraxas album. After signing with Arista, Santana won 8 out of a then record-breaking total of Grammys for the album Supernatural, the same amount that Michael Jackson’s Thriller won in 1984. (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2 tied Santana’s Grammy record several years later.) And Supernatural was the most popular album released in 1999. There’s nothing wrong with changing styles, and this does not mean that Supernatural was necessarily a bad album per se, but Santana’s funkier 1960s-70s music, which explored Afro-Cuban and other global cultures, didn’t win him even one Grammy!

Tupac and the Who also never earned any Grammys (though the Who actually did earn only the Lifetime Achievement Award, just like Led Zeppelin did). Nor have Queen or Grateful Dead (and “Bohemian Rhapsody” is probably the best rock song I’ve ever heard). And there are plenty more artists who either don’t win Grammys until late in their career, if at all, or whose music and talent often went and continue to go overlooked and underrated by the National Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences (NARAS). (Don’t get me started on people like 50 Cent, NSYNC, Jennifer “J. Lo” Lopez, Miley Cyrus, the Backstreet Boys, or ESPECIALLY Justin Bieber, because they’re among the exceptions to the rule.) If lucky, some or even most of those artists that won either one or no Grammys will get the aforementioned Lifetime Achievement Award…a much higher honor than all the other nominated categories put together.

Some unique artists like Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder, and Simon & Garfunkel won Grammys for their work, but music like those artists put out exemplify the kind of artistry that far surpasses the commercial appeal that past Grammy winners such as Britney Spears, Shania Twain, Shakira, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Milli Vanilli and the like have provided (no disrespect to them and their fans). Especially Stevie Wonder’s lyrics continue to inspire generations of music fans. Milli Vanilli were bereft of their Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1991 after their then producer, Frank Farian, revealed that they only appeared as posers for their Girl You Know It’s True album and didn’t actually sing the songs on it. Well, at least the Grammys did the right thing in taking back an award they gave to the wrong band.

At any rate, all the best to Beyoncé and the Black Eyed Peas and all the other Grammy nominees. Maybe someday the Grammys will devote some attention to artistic achievements and not just how many copies an artist has sold, or how long so-and-so spent on X, Y, and Z music charts in fill-in-the-blank territory, or anything like that. In short: If the Grammys were to reward artistic achievements in music instead of just commercial success, I bet few people would listen. Finally, in the words of the legendary 11x-Grammy winner Frank Sinatra:

“Remember, ladies and gentlemen: It’s about excellence, not popularity.”