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DIGITAL MUSIC POPSÂ… Pop artists are having a particularly good year. Green Day, for starters, is at the high point of its career, the band having just scored its highest-charting single ever, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams." The ballad recently peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, a week before the original American Idol Kelly Clarkson‘s fierce firecracker of a pop anthe, "Since U Been Gone," did the same. Clarkson’s song is literally breathtaking: its chorus pauses for a half-second before kicking in at full emo-strength. The chorus kicks in even more dramatically in Jason Nevins‘ rocking remixes, which are propelling that song to the top of all three Billboard dance charts (Radio Airplay, Club Play and Sales).
What’s going on here? It’s more than just quality songwriting and remixing. Credit, to a large extent, goes to the iTunes Music Store, two-years-old this week. iTunes, along with the other commercial digital music sites, has helped revive a left-for-dead singles market. Week after week, for example, more and more new club remixes become available at iTunes. It’s gotten to the point that in the past few weeks, well over half of the Top 20 tracks on the Club Play dance chart have been available on iTunes. Just a year ago, by contrast, you would be lucky to find three Top 20 remixes there.
The growing sales from this growing availability means these online sites have only just begun to impact the music business. So Billboard revamped its charts in February to incorporate sales figures from online music stores. And you see the results: Green Day and Clarkson got boosts to the top of the chart. Also boosted was the year-old conviction that rock and pop — including dance — are back as commercially viable genres. Pop is back, baby. Expect to see more pop and rock acts earning mainstream attention. As Clarkson would say, "Yeah, yeah!"….
HOLLABACK GWEN… Gwen Stefani is another pop artist aided by the reconfigured Billboard charts. She now has her highest-charting single as a solo artist — and she even managed it all without Eve. "Hollaback Girl," the giddy Bring It On-inspired cheerfest, could be Number 1 on the Hot 100 Chart by the time you read this. It should be — it’s pure pop fun. But where are the dance remixes? It’s hard to imagine one working, but still. This makes Stefani’s second hit single in a row to go without enlisting dance remixers’ assistance. So we’re stuck on repeat-play with Jacques Lu Cont‘s rework of her first single, "What You Waiting For." "Stuck" isn’t the right word, of course. Lu Cont gives us nothing to complain about….
REMIXING’S MR. BRIGHTSIDE… Recipient of this year’s Grammy for Best Remixed Recording, Jacques Lu Cont — real name Stuart Price — could become the first remixer to win back-to-back Grammys if he keeps going at this rate. For Fischerspooner‘s new single "Just Let Go," Lu Cont has created a blitzed-out, endorphin-rushing remix. But before you check that out, listen to his new Thin White Duke remix of The Killers‘ "Mr. Brightside." Lu Cont is clearly one of the best dance remixers working today, and his passion for uptempo rock couldn’t be more appropriate for today’s scene. "Mr. Brightside" is about to burst into the top ten of the Hot 100 Chart — say “happy anniversary” to iTunes, Killer boys. And thanks to Lu Cont’s characteristically sweet, guitar-charged remix (and another from Lindbergh Palace), the song looks set to very soon top the Club Play Chart as well….
KRAFTY REMIXES… Lu Cont’s "Mr. Brightside" remix is redolent of the mournful guitar plucks, hazy keyboard strokes and pulsating programmed drum beats that is New Order‘s signature. (And there’s more to come: Lu Cont has just finished a remix of New Order’s next single, "Jetstream.") But it’s not quite as New Order-y as what fellow passion-for-uptempo-rock remixer Richard Morel has done on his latest. Oh sure, he had a leg up in making "Krafty" extra-New Order-y. The song is, after all, New Order’s own first single from its just-released album Waiting for the Sirens’ Call. But the band has never sounded more like itself than on Morel’s Pink Noise Vox Remix. He keeps in place most of the guitar/keyboard/percussion elements from the original, as well as its contagious, chipper dance energy. But he makes it more New Order-y, and takes it one step closer to perfection, through his unexpected — and unnoticed, if don’t pay attention — addition of the manic percussive trills that gave New Order’s classic "Blue Monday" its hallmark flare. It’s a subtle and smart decision on Morel’s part, and one that makes a close listener appreciate anew one of dance music’s best and most influential songs ever. And you can download Morel’s "Krafty" remix on iTunes….
DEPECHE REFRESHED… Talk about a change of heart. A year and a half ago, Dave Gahan told Rolling Stone he had no interest in continuing as the lead singer of Depeche Mode. "I don’t see that there’s any point in making another record," he said. But since then, his first solo album, Paper Monsters, was a critical and commercial flop, so Gahan has now changed his tune. "It’s a great feeling to be back together in the studio again and we are very excited about the new material," he told Billboard last week. Yes, that’s right: this fall we’ll see what we didn’t expect to see, a new Depeche Mode album, the first in four years, and their eleventh in 25 years together. Gahan was beside himself in gushing to Billboard about the effort. "We’re all feeling incredibly positive about the album. [Producer] Ben Hillier has brought a whole new dynamic to the group which is quite inspiring." No further information about the album — it’s not known, for example, if Martin Gore will handle chief songwriting duties, as before. We can only hope. But a new dynamic is in order, considering that the group’s last effort, 2001’s Exciter, didn’t even sell 500,000 copies in the U.S., a far cry from its multi-million-selling glory days. Still, Hillier, who has worked with many of the most revered indie-pop British bands, from Blur to the Doves, will likely hew closer to the twisted rock of latter-day Mode music than that of its original, and far-better, twisted disco sound….
UN-BREAKING MY HEART (AGAIN)… It’s also been years since we’ve heard new music from Toni Braxton, and her last outing, 2003’s More Than A Woman, was less-than-successful. She’s just released a new single, however, the mid-tempo, hip-hop-styled "Please," and her husky, sexy voice sounds as good as ever. "Please" is the first track from a forthcoming album. Even better, Braxton has just released her first-ever remix compilation: the unbelievably, unrelentingly great Un-Break My Heart: The Remix Collection. The 11-track set, sequenced and confidently mixed by Hex Hector, features the remixes you know — Hector and Mac Quayle‘s HQ2 mix of "Spanish Guitar," David Morales’ "You’re Makin’ Me High," Frankie Knuckles’ "I Don’t Want To" and Knuckles’ and Soul Hex‘s remixes of the title track. All of these still retain their celebrated status as amazing reinterpretations of sleepy R&B ballads, though HQ2’s blazing, emotional "Spanish Guitar" is my pick as her best remix ever. The collection also includes five previously unreleased tracks, including a buzzing HQ2 remix of "Hit the Freeway" and two remixes of "He Wasn’t Man Enough" by Peter Rauhofer and Junior Vazquez. Edited versions of each "Man Enough" remix are imaginatively included back to back and presented as if they were just one 10-minute remix. That Hector is able to pull off that magic trick — and produce a nearly perfect compilation, captivating from start to finish — is testament to his musical prowess….
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL ADAPTS… Braxton’s remixed set is not the only one currently vying for your dollars. After years of neglecting the dance music consumer, the big record labels are slowing but surely again realizing the value in offering up remixes. A number of compilations featuring remixes of various artists are already out, and many more will drop in the next month. But a newer approach is to release compilations featuring remixes of material from just one artist. Besides Braxton from Sony/BMG (via its LaFace subsidiary), there’s also the Atlantic Records release of Adapt or Die: 10 Years of Remixes from Everything But The Girl, the downtempo electronica wizards. Here, an eclectic crew of remixers remake the favorite hits from the band’s Ben Watt and distinctive vocalist (and Watt’s wife) Tracy Thorn, making most of the tracks suitable for a fast-footed dance floor. Knee Deep, Dave Wallace, Todd Terry and Kevin Yost do an amazing job here. But there’s one mishap: Pull Timewarp‘s remix of "Temperamental," which slows down the song to an almost appealingly creepy slow-motion. But it’s a pace that’s ultimately just too sleepy….
ROXY MUSIC RECONSIDERED… A lesser-known compilation but one definitely worth your while is the Basic Lux/Tommy Boy release of Roxy: Re-Modeled. Unlike the others, this collection features various artists who’ve reworked tracks written and originally performed by one artist, the influential British synth-pop band Roxy Music. Most of the artists who’ve refashioned the 13 tracks here are unknown house music artists, and it’s not clear why bigger names, from Erasure to Duran Duran to Depeche Mode, weren’t recruited — or at least not successfully so. After all, the goal, according to the liner notes, was to make more Americans aware of the band. And more Americans should be made aware of Bryan Ferry‘s work in Roxy Music, which early on was created in conjunction with famed U2 producer and Talking Heads collaborator Brian Eno. Still, including little-known artists works to draw attention to those so deserving, here including Madison Park, whose jazzy, casual-disco sensibility makes "Same Old Scene" and "More Than This" two clear standouts. And because the idea for the compilation came from the members of Madison Park, who also own the Basic Lux label, it’s clear that another unstated goal was to raise that band’s profile….
P. DIDDY CRASHES THE PARTY… Two weeks ago, Miami hosted the annual Winter Music Conference, the dance music equivalent to the film industry’s Sundance. The highlight of going, besides hobnobbing with the leading proponents of dance music, is uncovering the next big song and the next big act in dance music. Who will be the next Basement Jaxx, Crystal Waters, or Debbie Gibson? All three were brought to wider attention after performing at the event over the course of its 20-year existence.
According to reports, there are several leading candidates, the most obvious of whom is P. Diddy. Yes, that P. Diddy — Sean Combs. It’s been reported for over a year that the hip-hop impresario was working on his debut dance-music album, and that, according to Remix magazine, Felix da Housecat was almost driven insane by Diddy’s demands as he worked producing tracks for the album. Nothing is known about the status of that project, but P. Diddy surprised the crowd at a club in downtown Miami by rocking to and fro next to DJ Housecat. No word on whether he did anything beyond looking glittery and jittery: not one of the reports from the event even mention his actual performance. That can’t be a good sign….
M.I.A.’S EXOTIC ELECTRONICA… A Miami Herald critic suggested that the next big star could be M.I.A., praising her "sheer, original talent." M.I.A., from Sri Lanka, is already a sensation in the U.K., where she currently lives. I haven’t yet heard her just-released album, Arular, which reportedly mixes U.K.-style hip-hop, bhangra and other exotic electronic styles and sounds not so dissimilar, apparently, to what Neneh Cherry created last decade. Sounds promising….
PAPA DON’T DANCE… But the next big dance-music star could very likely be someone we thought we already knew pretty intimately — Kelly Osbourne. Osbourne’s debut album, Shut Up, was pop-punk, true. But she says now that she hated it. "I really don’t like it and I can’t express that enough. It’s not me," she says in an advance press release for her sophomore album, Sleeping in the Nothing, due out June. She goes on to say she doesn’t listen to punk-rock "or even rock music for that matter." So, this time around, working with the best pop producer around, Linda Perry, who last year helped make Gwen Stefani a dance-pop princess, Osbourne has created an ’80s-pop inspired album of tracks that she hopes "could be played at any dance club in the world."
Accordingly, Osbourne made the rounds in Miami, by appearing at the International Dance Music Awards, the Club World Awards and at a BBC Radio 1 live broadcast. Her new song, "One Word," a slinky synth-pop number with a catchy chorus of processed vocals, got play around town. It’s also been remixed by former Thunderpuss heavyweight Chris Cox, so expect to hear at least that version soon enough….
DJ POPULARITY CONTEST… Paul Oakenfold, just one of many DJs in Miami for the music conference, is often touted as the most popular. But he hasn’t won a popularity contest in years. This year, as ever, the Brit is the second runner-up to the Dutch Tiesto and the German Paul van Dyk, respectively, in the BPM Magazine‘s annual readers’ poll. Winners of the magazine’s America’s Favorite DJ were announced in Miami. Washington’s own Deep Dish moved up from last year to take fifth place, one of the few changes in the top tier. And only one female DJ managed to crack the top 50 — the seriously hardcore techno lesbian DJ IreneÂ…
HOWL TO MIAMI… British DJ Danny Howells was voted the 35th most popular in the BPM DJ poll. He was also in Miami to release a two-disc set largely dedicated to the conference — or at least its unique locale. Global Underground #027 — Miami should help him continue to build his fan base and climb higher in the poll next year. Apparently in line with the music he plays late in a Saturday night live set, or really early Sunday morning — quirky disco, spacey grooves and warm deep house — the compilation also suggests his stop Saturday, April 16, at D.C.’s still-new nightclub Fur would be worth your while. Miami doesn’t sound much like a typical night out in its namesake Latin American capital, but then a night out at the city’s mega-club Space isn’t a typical night out — and it’s his fond memories of spinning at the club that inspired the set in the first place. Miami is a solid set, solid throughout its two-and-a-half hours of music, which is a feat all itself. Little chance you’ll know any of the tunes, but since nearly every one is instrumental, yet thoroughly melodic, there’s a big chance you’ll be playing this for years to come….
AWARD WRAP-UP… Finally, a couple noteworthy developments at the International Dance Music Awards and Club World Awards, both jury-selected. At IDMA: Gwen Stefani’s "What You Waiting For" took Best Alternative/Rock Dance Track title, besting U2‘s "Vertigo.” David Morales with Lea-Lorien‘s "How Would U Feel" was honored Best House/Garage Track. Usher‘s "Yeah" bested Destiny’s Child‘s "Lose My Breath" for Best R&B/Urban Dance Track. And hometown XM Radio’s Channel 81, BPM, was deemed Best Satellite Radio Channel. At CWA, recognizing the best in nightclubs: DC’s Fur lost out as Best New Club to Atlanta’s Compound, and New York’s Crobar owned the night with recognition as the Best Superclub and awarded for its lighting, design and video system….