BRIT Awards 2013

Brit Awards 2013 - Show

As ITV’s ad campaign reminded us this year, the BRIT Awards have always been and always will be the biggest night in British music, and 2013 didn’t disappoint. Last night’s ceremony was a look back at a year in music where Britain gave some incredible exports to the world: from Adele to One Direction, Mumford and Sons to Emeli Sandé, there was plenty of celebrating to be done.

Adele won the Best British Single for ‘Skyfall’ which she accepted from L.A. where she is hoping to bag the Oscar on Sunday night. Fellow Londoners-done-good Mumford and Sons were the toast of the night, taking Best British Band before bringing down the house with a performance of ‘I Will Wait’.

But as far as performances go, the evening was a little underwhelming. Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift gave decent performances, but none of the spectacle we have come to expect from our American visitors. One Direction ticked the pop segment, but not with anything too exciting. Robbie Williams had a nice set design, but looked a bit like Morrissey had walked on to Olly Murs’ performance by mistake. Worst of all there were none of the ceremony’s famous duets. Anyone holding out for a surprise appearance from Beyoncé or the Rolling Stones will have been very disappointed.

Even the banter was a little thin on the ground. James Cordon relied on worn jokes about Harry Styles’ flings with older women, and his infamous interjection to Adele’s speech last year. Even kissing Nick Grimshaw on the lips didn’t make him seem very funny. Had Sharon Osbourne not come on and said ‘willy’, the evening would have gone without lukewarm watershed defiance completely. Even then, it was Harry Styles’ willy she was talking about.

The evening’s ‘who the hell is this’ moment came twice – as chilled out, lesser know, guitar playing Ben Howard won British Breakthrough Act and Best British Male (he dropped out of uni, you know), both times proving that he had absolutely nothing to say for himself. Other winners included Coldplay, Frank Ocean, and the ever profound Lana ‘I made my life into a work of art’ Del Rey.

The losers of the evening were Alt-J, Plan B and Paloma Faith, who held double nominations but didn’t win. However, the profiles which were put together to mark their nominations in the Best British Album category certainly showed off the modest masterpieces they’ve created, and were a reminder that that the British album contest remains a powerhouse, even when it’s not dominated by major pop acts.

Emeli Sandé professed herself to be ‘a very unlikely pop star’, as she picked up the awards for Best British Female and Best British Album, and most people would probably agree. Her success in 2012 cannot be denied – in fact, it could not be escaped. But her omnipresence is only just made tolerable by the fact that she is a truly great talent, with a formidable catalogue of songs already under her belt. She closed the show (as only she can), reminding everyone that this night truly belonged to her.

All in all, a night without incident or highlight, but a celebration of one of the best years British music has had in a long time.

Full winners list
  • Critics’ Choice – Tom Odell
  • British Female Solo Artist – Emeli Sande
  • British Breakthrough – Ben Howard
  • British Group – Mumford & Sons
  • Best Male Solo Artist – Ben Howard
  • International Female Solo Artist – Lana Del Rey
  • Best Live Act – Coldplay
  • International Female Solo Artist – Lana Del Rey
  • Best British Single with Capital FM – Adele, ‘Skyfall’
  • International Male Solo artist – Frank Ocean
  • British Album Of The Year – Emeli Sande, ‘Our Version Of Events’
  • BRITs Global Success – One Direction

The BRIT Awards 2013 can be watched in their entirety on the ITV Player.

This review appeared originally on SoSoGay online.

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My favourite festive song: Fairytale of New York

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Irish traditional music with dark lyrics about addiction and domestic violence isn’t typical festive material. Yet 25 years on, ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl is often cited as the nation’s favourite Christmas song. It’s even hard to believe the Pet Shop Boys beat it to Christmas number one.

If you look beneath its surface, it’s surprising we came to love it so much. The whole song is lined with sadness. The opening piano part is undeniably melancholic, and when Shane MacGowan begins singing the verses, he’s telling the experience of a failed Irish immigrant in America. Lazily slurring his way through the lines, he’s a very believable drunk – a true storyteller, speaking from the heart.

The track deals with the recurrent Christmas theme of counting your blessings. MacGowan pities the old man singing in the drunk tank with him, unlikely to live out the year; and yet, listening to his narrative, we pity MacGowan. It reminds me of that harsh line in ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, that Bono didn’t want to sing, but which resonates stronger than any other in the song: ‘Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.’

But once the band kicks in, it’s joyous and uplifting. As an Irishman, it takes me back to home and a time long since past – like everything we enjoy at Christmas, it’s hugely nostalgic. The jig is wistful, the monochrome video is classic, and the line ‘Sinatra was swinging’ takes us right back to the glamorous 1940s. On top of that, there’s no better place to set Christmas than in New York – a cityscape draped in blankets of snow,  infused with neon lights, filled with magic and possibility. As the location of jazz standards and Hollywood movies since time began, it’s always been a city of fantasy and dreams for people around the world – but in this song, the singers face the harsh realities of life against the ‘fairytale’ setting of the city.

Despite the broken relationship depicted through the song’s dialogue, there’s a resolution in the line ‘and the bells were ringing out for Christmas day’. It’s not just a background to their squabbling. Christmas somehow softens the blow of their failed dreams; and of course, by it’s true meaning, Christmas is a time of new beginnings. Even the untimely passing of Kirsty MacColl herself brings a new sense of poignancy to the song. If I had to sum up its tone in one word, it’s bittersweet. That’s why you’ll find yourself singing along with a smile on your face, but also maybe with a tear in your eye.

This article originally appeared in SoSoGay magazine.

Alicia Keys – Girl On Fire

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Alicia Keys set herself a high bar by creating a modern classic with her début album, Songs In A Minor. But having sustained an incredible career for the past ten years based on pure talent and likability, she arrives at a turning point in her journey. Her private life is not usually a hot topic of conversation, but marriage and motherhood have inspired this fifth album, Girl On Fire – a celebration of a reinvention.

The opening track, ‘Brand New Me’, sets the tone and is an instant album highlight. It’s about her personal reinvention, but anyone could listen and hear a parallel to their own story. In her recent webcast, many in her ‘musical family’, spoke of how it moved them to tears. The personnel on this record reads like a who’s who of R&B music, with contributions from Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, Babyface, and Emeli Sandé.

Keys became a fan of Sandé’s after she supported her at a show last year. Describing themselves as ‘kindred spirits’, she boasts four co-writes on the album, though rumours that Sandé attempted a Part 4 of ‘Read All About It’ are unconfirmed. The songs they have written together – ‘Brand New Me’, ‘New Day’ and ‘Not Even The King’ – are the album’s highlights, although they are the kind of songs Keys has rhymed off solo on previous albums. ‘New Day’ is an anthem, with a strong Rihanna-esque chorus. Even on this track, which is a rare uptempo number, Keys is still her own woman, and her musicality shines through. ‘Not Even The King’ is a classic Alicia Keys song, using her favourite theme of love conquering material riches, but it’s not exhausted. As motherhood traditionally has for the female singer-songwriter, the arrival of her own offspring, Egypt (who makes his vocal début on the album too), has given Keys much food for thought.

Production wise, there’s a lot to be said for Keys having her own New York studio, and a DJ-producer for a husband. In her recent webcast she spoke of finally understanding that ‘less is more’. She leaves piano songs to piano, and other songs – like the incredible title track (featuring Nicki Minaj) – feel full with sparse but strong arrangements. Her sound is polished and defined, a honed version of all the textures she’s tested for years. ‘Listen To Your Heart’ sounds like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On album, but it’s clear and crisp, harking back to her début album, an association repeated with tracks like ‘You Don’t Know My Name’. There’s a similar retro feel to her Bruno Mars collaboration, ‘Tears Always Win’. Like so many, the album gets a bit thin on the ground towards the end, but closes by reverting to another strong piano number, ’101′.

Though her music never pushes boundaries too far, the talents of Alicia Keys are never wasted, and always apparent. Musically, she is the R&B champion of her generation, in the lineage of a very elite group; and with every strong album released, she proves why she’s the rightful heir.

This article originally appeared in SoSoGay magazine.

JLS – Evolution

In the past few years JLS have cemented themselves as one of the biggest groups in Britain, and possibly our most successful urban act. With their fourth album, Evolution, they are harking back to the R&B pop of the late 90s/early 00s. This album is much more traditional R&B than its two dance infused predecessors, Outta This World and Jukebox, and gives the boys a much more Americanised sound that will surely only add to their international appeal.

‘Dessert’ is a strong opener, with plenty of comparisons to women and tasty after-dinner courses (as you do). It’s really catchy, and sets the ball rolling for the Justin Timberlake tribute that becomes a theme throughout the first few tracks. JT was more or less trending on Twitter when JLS performed ‘Hottest Girl In The World’ on The X Factor. The track resembles everything from ‘Like I Love You’ and ‘Señorita’, to the *NSYNC hit, ‘Girlfriend’. Sung completely in falsetto, it’s got the fast pace that makes it a great dance number, and therefore a JLS hit track. It is probably the strongest single on the whole album.

The ‘where have I heard that before’ effect doesn’t end there. The piano riff on ‘Hold Me Down’ bears an uncanny resemblance to Emeli Sandé’s ‘Next To Me’, to an extent where you won’t be able to hear the song without thinking about it. This probably rules out, what is otherwise quite a good song, as a possible future single. ‘All The Way’ and ‘Give Me Life’ are both real club hits. Thanks to the writers and producers the boys have used on Evolution, they’ve managed to put themselves on a par with their U.S. counterparts, like Usher and Ne-Yo. ‘Don’t Know That’ and ‘Gotta Try It’ are the laid back, ballad type tracks, akin to ‘Everybody In Love’. ‘Don’t Know That’ will probably be a single, and has one of the catchiest hooks on the record. Towards the end of the album, quite a few songs start to bleed into each other and sound a bit familiar, but overall it has its memorable moments.

JLS subscribe to the Rihanna formula – with a new album every year for the past four. The good thing about this is that you’re never out of the public eye and it helps to keep the fire burning constantly, but the negative side is that it’s impossible to create a really great album every time, and usually difficult to develop new themes and sounds for each release. When they sing ‘You got goods like a corner store’, it’s just the kind of cringe-inducing analogy that’s been made on countless songs before. JLS have put a slightly different edge on their brand of R&B with Evolution, but it doesn’t stand out from their previous albums because of their regularity. Whilst albums are fundamentals for recording artists, JLS are much more a group who have hit singles and give stand-out live performances, than a band who make great albums. That said, fans will love this, and it’s very listenable for anyone else too.

This review originally appeared in SoSoGay magazine.

Mariah Carey – MTV Unplugged (A Retrospective)

The music world has no shortage of great live rock albums, but great live pop albums are few and far between. Reliant on dancing and backing tracks, pop shows usually don’t carry well outside the performance space. It took a carefully constructed live session on MTV Unplugged – a series actually set up for acoustic rock shows – to produce what I think is a perfect live pop album.

Since the release of her self titled début album in 1990, and her sophomore release Emotions in 1991, Mariah Carey was under fire for her lack of live performances. She’d done TV shows, but never toured. Critics began to suggest that ‘the voice’ was a studio creation – reliant on mixing and auto tune to create the gravity defying notes. So, to quash the rumours, her management booked her an MTV Unplugged session. With just 7 songs and clocking in at a mere 28 minutes in length, it’s officially an EP and it’s largely been forgotten about, but it’s quite possibly her finest work.

Aside from the fact that the dress code was clearly ‘anything black’ (leather and sequins both feature heavily), the musical outfit is wonderful. Backed by ten gospel singers and a tight pop-blues band (including legendary Randy Jackson on bass), she kicks off in style with one of her best tracks, ‘Emotions’. It starts like a vocal warm up, but it’s not long before the famous whistle register is out in full force. This is a rare vocal ability, often unheard of outside of opera. It’s a hugely impressive gift, and Mariah handles it with great technical care. It has since become her trademark, but here she only uses it a handful of times, and to rapturous applause. A strong saxophone section makes for a special performance of ‘If It’s Over’, written by Carey and one of her heroes, Carole King. ‘Someday’ and ‘Make It Happen’ are both up-tempo soulful numbers with some great solos from the band. The use of the backing singers in an intimate environment give everything a gospel edge, like it’s some sort of pop Baptist church. You’ll have to resist the temptation to point your finger and shout ‘testify!’during ‘Make It Happen’. Her début single, ‘Vision Of Love’, is a well-received highlight, largely because this was a song specially crafted to show off her voice and all its tricks. It’s a pop masterpiece, with clever chord movements, a simple but catchy chorus, and a great call and response section, which Carey sang with herself in the original (you’ll have to settle for backing singer Trey Lorenz here). Her rendition of the Jackson 5′s ‘I’ll Be There’ is the album’s shining moment. A last minute addition to the set, it has become one of her signature songs, even performed by her at Michael Jackson’s memorial service.

Mariah once said that as a perfectionist, ‘I tend to nitpick everything I do’ and that MTV Unplugged taught her ‘the raw stuff is usually better.’ This format may be raw, but you’ll be hard pushed to find a single vocal imperfection. More than just a master class in female pop vocals, this record is a blueprint for the careers of women like Christina Aguilera and Jessie J. Yes, warbling may be frowned upon now as over done, but here Mariah is bringing it to the table for the first time in her own unique way, and gets it just right.

In 1996, Mariah divorced her restrictive husband and Sony boss, Tommy Mottola, (the emancipation of Mimi, if you will). At that point, Mariah the Diva was born. But before that, she was a girl who seemed young for her age, unsure of herself and her talents, modest, and wholly concerned with giving a great musical performance. The display of this long lost personality is one of the things that makes this record even more striking. She’s slightly embarrassed and giggly when accepting applause and agreeing to an encore – and when thanking the audience for coming she sounds genuinely grateful and humble. It’s a different Mariah, and for many people it’s one they’d much prefer: incredible vocals, with none of the outlandish behaviour. This is a pure Mariah Carey, not just unplugged in the musical sense, but stripped down to the basics that made her a star, and secured her voice as one of the greatest of all time. Sadly, time has taken its toll on her iconic voice, but here, in a charming show filmed in a small New York theatre in 1992, her unique talent was captured perfectly in all its glory. Take a half hour and give it the listen it deserves.

This piece originally appeared in So So Gay magazine.

Introducing: King Charles

We first came across King Charles in an Evening Standard feature in April and the first thing that struck us (as it will you) is his carefully crafted image. He’s a combination of Prince, and an actual King Charles (the second more than the first – certainly not the third). His clothes are a cross between regal and hipster – he’s just as likely to be in a ruffle neck on stage, and a Lonsdale zip-up off stage. His hair is somewhere between Bob Marley and Amy Winehouse, and it’s all topped off beautifully with a perfect handlebar moustache. Ultimately, he’s a royal dream to look at. He wouldn’t appear out of place as a Made In Chelsea wannabe, but this west London man has real talent to back it up.

A multi-instrumentalist since childhood, he signed to Universal after winning the International Songwriting Competition in 2009, and toured for a bit with pals Mumford and Sons (who perform a track with him on the album). A look at his Glastonbury performance from that year shows how his unique act has been polished off to perfection. Since the release of his album, LoveBlood, in May, he’s had a busy year, and started a considerable buzz on the scene. He played at practically every festival this summer (his Facebook page documents tireless gigging), topped off with sold-out gigs at Heaven and KOKO in London, as well as a session on Radio 2 with Jo Whiley.

Unlike many new artists you’re introduced to, King Charles is a treat to listen. His songs are current, melodic, and light hearted, and he’s achieved something wonderful in that they all feed into the concept of his act. He sounds like a wayward aristocrat who has run off to become something closer to a rock star (somewhere between Freddie Mercury and Prince Harry). For a first listen, it’s best to get started with the ridiculously catchy ‘Bam Bam’, the alternative ditty ‘Mississippi Isabel’ and the joyous, Graceland-esque ‘Lady Percy’ – but LoveBlood is a treat on the whole, and you won’t need to skip a track.

He hasn’t really punctured the mainstream yet but if there’s any justice in the world, he will soon. Great male artists have been the toast of Britain for decades, but they’ve been thin on the ground in recent years. King Charles ticks every box. Long may he reign.

This piece originally appeared in SoSoGay magazine.

Re-Orchestrated and Re-Released

If the new Adele Bond theme ‘Skyfall’ has whet your appetite for all things orchestral, then it looks like you’re in for a few treats this coming winter. As well as what is set to be an incredible soundtrack to the Les Miserables film (recorded live on set), one of the major trends occurring in pre-Christmas releases is the re-release of albums and collections that have been completely re-orchestrated for an even greater listening experience. And we’re not just talking about a couple of buttons played with on a mixing desk of previously existing tracks – this is music completely re-recorded with an orchestra replacing original synthesisers or bands. Literally music to my ears. Here’s a few I’m particularly excited by…

Freddie Mercury & Montserrat Cabelle – Barcelona

In 1987 Freddie Mercury became besotted with the voice of Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe, and set about writing a duet for the 1992 Olympics which had been awarded to Barcelona. The song developed into a full album, released in 1988. Freddie’s death in 1991 meant he was unable to perform the title track at the 1992 Opening Ceremony, but the project is an important part of his musical legacy, hinting at the opera music he had planned for the future. Label uncertainty meant that funding wasn’t readily given for an orchestral recording, so Freddie recorded the whole thing on synthesiser keyboards. Now, for the first time, on the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the project, we can listen to it the way it was meant to be.

Standout Track: ‘Barcelona’

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Kylie Minogue – The Abbey Road Sessions

As pop music goes, Kylie Minogue’s repertoire is rich. From the Stock Aiken Waterman hits of the late 90s, through the experimental wilderness of the early 90s, to the glorious post-Spinning Around years up to now, you can’t help but love at least a couple (if not several). Now they’ve all been reworked into new arrangements, recorded with full orchestra at London’s legendary Abbey Road studios, and complete with new vocals from Ms Minogue herself. For some of the tracks which traditionally sound a bit cheesy (‘I Should Be So Lucky’), or completely played to death (‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’), this is a new way to enjoy them. It’s even been given a bit of a Christmas polish, with some of the instruments used, and the glistening album cover. Lovely.

Standout Track: It’s a toss up between ‘All The Lovers’ and ‘Confide In Me’

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Tori Amos – Gold Dust

This album is marking the 20th anniversary of the beginning of Tori’s unique career, in which she has always been an experimental artist. Gold Dust is her 13th studio album, most of which are self-produced. In the past she’s done a covers album, a collection of unreleased tracks, albums in character, and reworkings of Christmas carols. She says it’s working with the unity of the orchestra, as opposed to individuals in a band, that makes this new project special for her. She’s recorded new versions of songs from throughout her career, with the renowned Metropole Orchestra, and the results prove her musicality is still one of the greatest working in the industry today.

Standout Track: ‘Precious Things’

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The ones I want to hear next…

Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)

Elton’s magnum opus is the perfect album to give the reworking to. It already has orchestral elements in tracks like the 11 minute ‘Funeral For a Friend’ and it would make tracks like ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’ and ‘Candle In The Wind’ sound even more lush.

Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run (1975)

Springsteen spent so long trying to perfect the sound he wanted for Born To Run, it went through at least 3 styles, and nearly ended up as a live album, before some hard work made it into the legendary piece we know today. This is an epic album, in concept and musicality, and an orchestra is probably the only thing that could make it even more compelling, if not taking it off in a different direction. ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ would be a massive ball of fun; ‘Jungleland’ would be something truly remarkable.

Prince – Purple Rain (1984)

Prince has so many projects on the go at one time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had an orchestral version of a classic album up his sleeve. This cutting edge production in 1984 would lend itself so well to ever grander arrangements – not least the Oscar winning title track – and I’m sure Prince is just the man to give it a wacky reworking.