Rewind: Favorite Diva Albums Of 1985 [Part Two]


+ Grace Jones - Slave To The Rhythm

Slave To The Rhythm is essentially built around one song that is replicated in eight different ways. That's it's. That's its gist. But to call this a remix album, or even a precursor to it, is where some will take you up for debate as each song truly stands on its own staggering stiletto heels. Still, no matter its concept, Slave To The Rhythm is Grace Jones at the height of her 1980s slayage, and to be flippant about it is an exercise in foolishness.

Jones has always been an intense and expressive force ever since she began her career as one of the premier supermodels of the glitzy Studio 54 era, becoming a muse to noted photographers and fashion visionaries such as Antonio Lopez and Jean-Paul Goude. Her fashion success later translated to film work where she became a teeth-baring bad ass in such cinematic classics as Conan The Barbarian, Vamp, and A View To Kill. Jones recording career is where she cemented her icon status as her trinity of albums on Island Records turned her into an avant-garde pop star, and with her chic and wild persona she electrified and corrupted the status quo of the New Wave, Reggae, and pop genres, cultivating a cache of hit singles. While we rather have models be seen striking poses and not heard attempting to carve out singing careers (sorry Naomi... *ducks*), Grace Jones managed to prove #NotAllModels as she became the godmother of the Afro-Punk movement and a style source point for all your current diva faves.

After breaking ties with Island Records in 1984, producer Trevor Horn approached Jones to create a new kind of project, a type of "recorded autobiography" where juxtaposed between cutting edge music would be a mock interview between Jones and an interviewer. What blossoms from that kernel of an idea is Slave To The Rhythm, a game-changing set that featured over 40+ musicians, numerous tempo changes, as well as the fascinating "story" of Miss Grace Jones. It sounds like a tedious, albeit pretentious act, but Jones is standing nowhere near those words, and Horn has the keen sense to take "Slave To The Rhythm" and redress it up in stylish new clothes so it never wears the same thing twice --- as is the model way.

Sometimes the song takes on a cool glide across the runway ("The Fashion Show") or stands in front of the pulse and flash of a camera ("The Frog & The Princess") or meditates in an cone of tweeting birds and a digital babbling stream ("The Crossing (Ooh The Action)"), or more excitingly thrashing and strutting across the brightly-lit stage ("Jones The Rhythm"). Whatever direction the song takes, new life is brought to it each and every time. The core mantra, "Ladies & Gentleman: Miss Grace Jones" is the most "normal-sounding" song present, but it is one Jones' finest hours, as crisp guitars, earthy percussion and horns guide the track into a sophisti-pop groove that urges you to "never stop the action". As grand as the song is, the video is the real showstopper, it's a visual masterpiece that, for me, raised the bar when it comes to music videos as it's chock-filled with bizarre and intriguing imagery that can only be witnessed to be believed.

The eye and ear will wander throughout this sonic spectacle, that is a given as there is much to hear and digest, but as always (and as it always should be) you're still setting your sight on the grandest spectacle of them all --- Miss Grace Jones.



++++


+ Patti Austin - Gettin' Away With Murder

Out of her assortment of albums, Gettin' Away With Murder is the one Patti Austin album I always return to. It's pop, it's jazz, it's quiet storm, it's R&B, it's....it's a little bit of everything and you can call me #TeamGreedy, but I tend to have soft spots for albums that do the genre hopscotch, and do it well. True, sometimes when there are too many cooks in the kitchen we can end up with shit stew, but Gettin' Away With Murder while boasting a who's who of session musicians, producers, and a bevy of surprise guest superstar guests (Billy Joel, Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, Toto), the album as a whole never sounds overcooked.

Released during the time frame Austin was courting a mainstream sound on Quincy Jones' Qwest label, Gettin' Away With Murder is polished and suave pop. Though it was geared to do the opposite, the album is a bit too mature for the MTV crowd (as were all of Austin's 1980s Qwest recordings, hence why her crossover never really worked...), but there are moments on this particular set where Austin captures a pop star sound to great effect. The album's prime selling point is the support Austin gets from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who are just a year shy from making history with none other than Miss Janet Jackson.

With Austin, Jam and Lewis keep things 'neat' and, well, polite, but Austin did get to the top 20 of the R&B charts being flirtatious on the slinky number, "The Heat Of Heat". "The Heat Of Heat" is not as stark as say, Jackson's "Nasty" and it doesn't even compare to the acerbic word play of Cherrelle's funk joints, but Austin smolders well as the temperature rises and rises. More fittingly to Austin's vocal repertoire, Jam and Lewis also contribute the pensive nocturne of "Summer Is The Coldest Time Of The Year" where Austin's voice is once again center stage and on-point, melding nicely with the track's orchestral sound bed. Also from the Flyte Tyme camp, The Time's Monte Moir pens, "Only A Breath Away", and surprise, surprise it's my favorite here, as it has the same feel as its musical kin, Jackson's "The Pleasure Principle", only that "Breath" is a little lighter on its feet.

Jam and Lewis don't hog the whole production though as other highlights include a spirited cover of Alison Moyet's "Honey For The Bees", the oh so Toto sounding, "Anything Can Happen Here", and a star-studded stomper, "Talkin' 'Bout My Baby" that is penned by Michael Bolton of all people.

Gettin' Away With Murder may not roll off the tongue easily when we're talking 'classic albums of the 1980s', but to me it should get it's due, not only as the precursor to Jam and Lewis' fine-tuning their impeccable signature sound, but Austin putting her voice to pop sensibility --- and actually succeeding.

Bonus points for the black cat on the cover. Meow. 

Stream + Listen: Patti Austin - Gettin' Away With Murder

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+ Whitney Houston - Whitney Houston

Whenever I look back at Whitney Houston's career, her legacy, a mixture of sadness and disappointment rears. Sadness over what it dissolved into --- drugs, damaged vocals, death, and recently, the death of her pride and joy, daughter Bobbi Kristina --- and disappointment that the latter part of her career had Houston become a skewed wig punchline, a literal walking PSA of what to never ever do with your life (crack is whack, you guys). In the end, while the more disheveled images of Houston and her tragic passing tend to be attached to her name, never can those images erode what a pioneering diva and musical treasure she once was.

In 1985 Houston was a regal and youthful Jersey girl with a phenomenal vocal gift and a wide, sparkling smile. She came from a musical family as mother, Cissy Houston, was an in-demand session musician for the likes of Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley, and cousin Dionne Warwick, was a popular singer during the 1960s and 1970s, famous for singing from Burt Bacharah's songbook. Musically Houston was raised on a diet of her mother and cousin's secular soulful ventures as well as the traditional gospel she heard growing up in Baptist church culture, and it was from these humble beginnings that lent to her 'good-girl-next-door' image that became a prime selling-point at the start of her career.

In the late 1970s Arista Records was vying for a "star diva" with crossover appeal to be on the label, and after singers Phyllis Hyman and Angela Bofill failed to gain any traction hit-wise, Houston ended up being the third charm, as after Arista's head honcho, Clive Davis discovered her at the age of 13, the record label had finally found their crossover diva. The roll-out for Houston's debut took several years to come together, but after securing the talents of Kashif, Narada Michael Walden, Jeffery Osborne, Michael Masser, and Jermaine Jackson, the album was complete and fine-tuned to pop perfection.

Whitney Houston's success rides on its hit singles with three of them --- "Saving All My Love For You", "How Will I Know" and "Greatest Love Of All" --- reaching #1, and it was a feat not previously achieved on a female artist's debut album at the time. All of the albums singles were not just showcase for Houston's vocal gymnastics, but were also crucial to establishing the quieter side of R&B for the 1980s after disco/funk went out of vogue. Say what you want about how 'softball' these songs may sound, but when you hear Houston's voice slide like butter off of "You Give Good Love" and hear her yearn for her married lover on "Saving All My Love For You" you can't deny how those songs started a whole generation of little girls clutching hairbrushes and dreaming diva dreams, leading to a new breed of Black female entertainers who could now successfully integrate a little melanin into the popular music charts.

The only groan I have about Houston's debut is that's it's almost too calculated and too exact. Save for the hit singles, and a spiky funk groove provided by Kashif on the misbegotten "Thinkin' About You", a lot of filler ballads are present that were simply conceived to highlight Houston's voice, but do little to push her aesthetic wise. And while Jermaine Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass were viable soul men in their own right, Houston is obviously backing down to accommodate their unique vocal personalities, leading to some of her vocal fire being extinguished. My compliant somewhat mirrors that of soul purists whom believed that Whitney Houston was one of the culprits of the "watering down" (and the later whitewashing) era of soul music in the 1980s. Granted, Whitney Houston was never supposed to be Anita Baker's Rapture or Brenda Russell's Get Here, but I often wonder if there had been a lean towards jazz, a few more basslines, and just a little rawness in the material, maybe Houston's debut could've had more bite to it. Then again, whenever I listen to the snap synth pop of "How Will I Know" or hear how lush and lovely she sounds on "All At Once" I have to realize that music will always, and forever be, subjective.

Though not Houston's best (that would be 1990's New Jill exercise, I'm Your Baby Tonight, thankyoumuch), Whitney Houston is still a hallmark album that started a wealth of industry trends that carried over into latter decades. From the Svengali-led era of ladies of song and their carefully carved debuts (nod to Mariah Carey and Celine Dion) to pinpointing how the pop queen game is supposed to be played, Whitney Houston is where the legacy begins and where we became acquainted with one of the greatest voices in music history.


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+ Sheena Easton - Do You

If there are two Sheena Easton albums that you should ever admit to owning (because admitting to liking Easton in 2015 is already ostracizing enough) it's 1989's The Lover In Me, and this. Do You comes out a year after Prince 'corrupted' Easton on A Private Heaven, and while there is nothing scandalous to twist Tipper Gore into hysterics in its tracklisting, Do You is a sexy little pop album that continues where Easton left off when she let us all get a taste of her *light cough* "sugar walls".

Easton definitely went "Black" for the erotic funk hit, "Sugar Walls" in 1984, and well, as the euphemism goes, she never went back, because as the '80s progressed her sound became more and more urban, almost completely erasing any evidence of her early power pop balladeer days. Go back and listen to early hits like "Modern Girl" and albums like 1981's You Should've Been With Me and then go listen to this --- it's like night and day. Like Madonna before her, Easton was smart to keep courting a blanched "Black sound" as she too allowed Chic's Nile Rodger's to oversee her latest aural reinvention. Easton still has her BIG voice as she is able to rise above the swath of  synths and drum programming with it, and really, she always had a richness to her voice that was soulful it's just that with Rodger's guidance this time around she is able to truly apply it to material that fits the ebb and flow of it.

Do You features a number of stylish up-tempos that were begging for MTV representation, such as its lead off single, "Do It For Love" which to me is one of the most underrated dance jams of the '80s. "Don't Break My Heart" and the Junior-penned "Don't Turn Your Back" also crackle and pop, leading to confusion as to why someone thought it was a bright idea to release a lukewarm reading of Martha & The Vandellas classic, "Jimmy Mack" as a single instead of dipping from this duo of light funk. Rodger's moody ballad "Magic Of Love" is the definite highlight, adopting the steady soulful vocal cannon of the Chic sound formula, but I also tend to stick around for the other slower jams here such as "Kisses" and "Can't Wait Till Tomorrow", the latter taking some cues from Sade's silky soul handbook.

Marred by a dumb single choice (can't you tell I really hate that "Jimmy Mack" cover?) and lackluster care for follow-up, Do You slipped away off of the charts before it even got started. Later on, Easton would get into some label tussles as her next album, 1987's No Sound But A Heart was shelved, not seeing the light of day until the 1990s, but she came back strong in '89 decked out in a New Jill guise for the Babyface-produced The Lover In Me. Still Do You is the album that kept the momentum and continued Easton on the road to pop star corruption, and to follow her on it you must.


++++


+ Eurythmics - Be Yourself Tonight

Annie Lennox is one of the coolest people ever.

No, I don't know her personally (I friggin' wish...), but I'm confident to make that claim because, well, have you listened to an Annie Lennox or Eurythmics album? Seen her work a suit and a wig? Or even listened to her discuss about feminism and activism? I could write a dissertation about the cool lightness of being Annie Lennox, but since we don't have that kind of time (or space) for a proper stan session, I'll just keep it brief and circa 1985...

Eurythmics were already New Wave royalty by the time they released, their fourth album, Be Yourself Tonight, the success attributing to Lennox and partner Dave Stewart having a seamless flair for penning and executing catchy, hook-laden songs. While Lennox's distinctive and chamelonic tone led the way Stewart also deserves credit for his savvy production and arranging as he knew how to layer Lennox's expressive vox to create exciting moments of overdub heaven like on "Here Comes That Sinking Feeling" and "It's Alright (Baby's Coming Back)", whilst sprinkling in sonic flourishes such as the fluttering pan flue in "Conditioned Soul" or line "I Love You Like A Ball & Chain" with a gritty guitar bed and clanks of chains. These small, but intense, flourishes kept their sound fresh and ventilated, never bogging down their obvious electronic backbone.

Always unique, but still on trend, Be Yourself Tonight is where Lennox's passionate vocals and Stewart's keen production sense are at their most assured, and their most commercial as its boldly stacked with hit singles and classic crossover stylings. An obvious lean towards soul and R&B music is present, with Lennox's crystal blue-eyed soul persuasion showing up and out, but to say these soulful touches 'soften' the sound of the Eurythmics is limiting especially when you take in the growling rock-soul opener, "Would I Lie To You?" or hear Lennox charm on personal favorite, "It's Alright". Still, their icy ominous electronica sound from previous releases is taken down a few notches, giving the Eurythmics, an accessible, friendlier sound.

Be Yourself Tonight also boasts some megawatt star power that aids to its commercial appeal. Elvis Costello swaps verses with Lennox on "Adrian", and as cool as I want that song to be considering the combination of those two, it's kind of a dud. Though not a bother to me, I can understand why some rotted their teeth on the spun sugar of the celestial, "There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)" and were stunned, even a little miffed that this was their only #1 hit in their native UK (What? Not "Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This"? Unacceptable!). Still, Stevie Wonder's harmonica solo is delightful as it is tactful, and it slips well into this gospel-inspired number where Lennox shows off those pristine chops.

I'm (obviously) more partial to Lennox not being intimidated by the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin as together they let loose on the epic feminist anthem, "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves". And no, I'm not too "young" to know this song (side-eye to Piper's Orange Is The New Black), as it's probably one of my go-to femme anthems outside of "U.N.I.T.Y" and "I'm Every Woman". I wasn't surprised to learn Lennox and Stewart initially wanted Tina Turner for the track, and while that may have been an even more heated experience, Franklin and Lennox, to me, mesh well.

While I like my Eurythmics moody and pensive, and prefer their 1987 album, Savage to this, their stab at a shiny, commercialized pop direction is still one of my favorite musical moments of the 1980s.

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