Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rarities #38: Madonna - Celebration Pop Up Promo Box (2009)

If you didn't know by now, Madonna has released her third greatest hits album, and it is her last album under Warner. She will be moving on to Live Nation next.

Celebration follows The Immaculate Collection (1990) and GHV2 (2001). There's a 1CD version and a 2 CD version. The 2CD versions contains 36 songs, with 2 new songs - the title track and Revolver featuring Lil' Wayne. It is the first time all of Madonna's greatest hits are compiled in one album, so it's been billed as the Ultimate Collection. Rightly so.

Also, there's the DVD album to accompany the CD release. The 2DVD album is titled Celebration: The Video Collection, and it has 47 videos, including the latest one for Celebration, but it's the Benny Benassi Remix of the song. It's pretty cool.

The most glaring omission on the DVD is American Life. The video caused quite a stir when it was originally released because of its anti-war message, just as the US was about to go to war with Iraq. It was shown on a few channels for just one day before Madonna yanked it and replaced it with a tamer version, where she is filmed in front of a backdrop of different flags of the world. However, not even the revised version made it to this DVD.

Needless to say, both the CD and DVD albums are essential to any music collection, and what's more the tracks on the CD have been digitally remastered, so they sound better than ever. I didn't really like Celebration the first time I heard it, but it sure grew on me. The spoken segment in the middle is classic Madonna ("I don't recognise you with your clothes on"). The Benny Benassi Remix is darn good too.

The pop up box is a promo item and it's super rare. It houses the 2CDs and 2DVDs in a pizza box with a magnetic clasp. The pop up images represent the different iconic looks Madonna had adopted over the years. She's not the Queen Of Pop for nothing.

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Foo Fighters - Greatest Hits or Best Of?

I think I've finally found out what's the difference between a "greatest hits" and "best of" album. For the former, a song would have to be a "hit" in order to substantiate its inclusion, and that is usually determined by chart action - whether it was #1 or Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 or Modern Rock or whatever chart.

On the other hand, the songs on a "best of" album might not technically have been "hits" in the chart performance sense, or they might not even have been released as singles due to a myriad of reasons (e.g. no budget to shoot an accompanying video, record label decision etc), but they are generally considered the artist's best work - by the fans/critics/the artists themselves.

More often than not, the best songs do get released as singles, and if they're that good, they usually become hits. So there's usually not much difference between calling an album a "greatest hits" or "best of" album. But sometimes, there's a disconnect.

I thought I'd use Foo Fighters' latest Greatest Hits album as an example of this observation, but upon closer inspection, I realised that it's not a very good example.

The tracklist contains 16 songs, 13 old songs plus two new songs (Wheels and Word Forward) and one acoustic version of Everlong (finally!). Back in August, I came up with my wishlist of the tracklist, where I chose 14 old songs to accompany the two new tracks. The three songs that didn't make it are I'll Stick Around, Walking After You and Let It Die. I personally feel that those three songs are among their best work and it's a real pity they aren't included.

Looking at the chart performance of the selected 13 songs, they do qualify as "hits", since they all hit Top 10. The only exception is Skin And Bones, which was probably chosen because they wanted each album to be represented. I used the Billboard Modern Rock Chart as a barometer of chart performance.

1. All My Life (#1, 10 weeks)
2. Best Of You (#1, 7 weeks)
3. Everlong (#3)
4. The Pretender (#1, 18 weeks)
5. My Hero (#6)
6. Learn To Fly (#1, 1 week)
7. Times Like These (#5)
8. Monkey Wrench (#9)
9. Big Me (#3)
10. Breakout (#8)
11. Long Road To Ruin (#1, 7 weeks)
12. This Is A Call (#2)
13. Skin And Bones (did not chart)

The "hits" that did not make it are:
- I'll Stick Around (#8)
- DOA (#1, 6 weeks)
- No Way Back (#2)
- Let It Die (#1, 1 week)

So it seems not all the hits were given fair treatment and not all of them made it. Thus, my theory of the difference between a "greatest hits" and "best of" album doesn't stand. Well...

But the deluxe edition of the album comes with a bonus DVD that includes 17 music videos (including the new Wheels video), four live performances and a bonus music video for No Way Back. So in a way, they're trying to compensate for the exclusion of those tracks by putting the video in. But there's still no Let It Die though.

To celebrate the release of Greatest Hits, here's all the CD albums, singles DVDs and vinyls I own. Many of the singles were purchased overseas, especially the earlier singles. I haven't got the Greatest Hits album yet (gasp!), but I will get it soon.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Janet Is Back...For Real

Janet Jackson is on the verge of yet another "comeback". Ever since the Superbowl incident, every project she has been involved with has been labelled as a "comeback" - the 20 Y.O. and Discipline albums, and the ill-fated Rock Witchu Tour. Now, I hope it's for real.

The truth is, she has never been away. In between those two albums, she also found time to act in Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?, which earned her considerable praise. Discipline became her sixth number one album and she pleased her fans by fulfilling her promise of a tour, albeit a short one.

Now, on the back of what was supposed to have been a great "comeback" by brother Michael himself, Janet finds herself carrying on the torch of the family. As the world has seen from the This Is It movie, it would have been a remarkable comeback for Michael, so let's hope Janet's "comeback" will be equally impressive.

It began with Janet's tribute to MJ during the VMAs. The performance was an important one. It was the first time she ever performed Scream "live" with MJ, and she reminded everyone that she looked as good as ever and she could tear down the stage just like MJ did. That nobody does VMA performances like the Jacksons do.

That same night, her newly-revamped website offered free streaming of a new track, Make Me. At that time, it wasn't known whether it would be the lead single from a new album. But it was later revealed that it will be included in her upcoming greatest hits album.

The song is produced by Rodney Jerkins, who was the chief producer on MJ's Invincible album. Jerkins had previously worked with Janet on four tracks from Discipline, and I thought they were among the best tunes from the album. Jerkins also recently revealed to MTV that he's working on Janet's new album, due to be released next year.

Perhaps due to MJ's passing and Jerkins' involvment, Make Me has more than a touch of MJ in it. The chorus references MJ's Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, with the line "Don't stop it baby, don't stop 'til you get it up". (I'm sure you know what the "it" means when she says "get it up". It's sooo Janet.)

The music also features a lot of percussion like in MJ's original. Janet and brother Randy played percussion on the demo for MJ's song. You can hear the demo on the 2001 reissue of Off The Wall.

Make Me also has Janet doing a lot of vocal hiccups and panting breaths, just like how MJ used to do all the time. It's a fitting tribute to her brother, and I really hope it does well.

Billboard has just reviewed the single, calling it "her most appealing and high-energy track since the 2001 All For You...", and it "isn't just Jackson's best dance song in years - it's a hit that would make her brother proud". I totally agree. It's been a long time since we had such strong vocals from Janet.

A fan from JanetXone has pointed out that Make Me samples an old song by Fonzi Thornton called I Work For A Livin'. Janet has always sampled other people's songs and while some would say it's lazy, I think it's even harder to live up to expectations when you're using something that has been done before, especially if it's famous. How do you put a new spin on it to make it even better than the original?

You can listen to the 2 songs here:

Janet was also working on the sequel to Why Did I Get Married? and she was halfway through filming when the news of MJ's passing broke. She flew back to LA to be with the family but returned to the set to continue filming so as not to hold up production.

The sequel is called Why Did I Get Married Too? and it will open in the US on April 2nd next year. Lionsgate just released the teaser trailer and Janet looks pretty intense in it.

The original film wasn't released in Singapore but I managed to get the DVD from overseas. It was quite enjoyable and I thought Janet did a good job. I doubt they will release the sequel here too. We shall see.

It will be a busy end of year for Janet, as she goes into promotion mode to support the release of Number Ones. She has a few high-profile events booked and her diary looks like this:

17 Nov: Release of Number Ones in the US
18 Nov: ABC prime-time interview with Janet at her Malibu home
22 Nov: Rumoured performance at the American Music Awards
6 Dec: Rumoured performance on X-Factor semi-finals, where she will be a mentor as well
6 Dec: Performance at the Jingle Bell Ball in London

The ABC interview is her first since MJ's passing and it will be the first time she has allowed cameras into her Malibu home. Needless to say, it will be a huge event because she is the most credible Jackson left and people will be interested to hear what she says. Nobody really gives a hoot about what LaToya, Jermaine or worse still, Joe, says.

I'm sure Janet is doing this for the right reasons and she's not exploiting the memory of her brother. Of course, the interview is timed with the release of the album, but I'm confident Janet will not say anything just to sensationalise the media. I hope it will be an intimate interview and reveal a different side of Janet that most people don't get to see.

Coming back to Number Ones, it is her second greatest hits album, 14 years since Design Of A Decade. Internationally, the album will be called Janet Jackson: The Best. Doesn't make much difference to me.

It will be a 2CD set with 34 songs including Make Me, the only new song. The songs here have all supposedly made it to number one somewhere around the world, hence the title. Unlike DOAD, they're arranged in chronological order.

While DOAD contained primarily songs from the A&M years (with the exception of 2 songs from the janet. album) and 2 new songs (Runaway and Twenty Foreplay), Number Ones contains Janet's A&M, Virgin and Island Def Jam years, but not containing any cuts from her two pre-Control albums.

All of the songs from DOAD are here, except Twenty Foreplay, which wasn't a major hit anyway. But there's more here on Number Ones. It also includes a few collaborations that were not included on Janet's albums.

Diamonds is a song by Herp Albert featuring vocals by Janet and Lisa Keith, and it is taken from Herp's 1987 Keep Your Eye On Me album. The Cool Summer Mix Edit of this song was included in the bonus disc of the limited edition version of DOAD, but otherwise, it has never appeared on a Janet album before.

What's It Gonna Be?! is a 1999 single by Busta Rhymes featuring Janet. It had an expensive music video directed by Hype Williams (who later shot Janet's equally expensive Call On Me video). It hit #1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks and Hot Rap Tracks charts, and was nominated for four MTV VMAs.

Then there's Scream, her only duet with MJ, taken from the HIStory album. The video remains one of my favourite of all time, and I'm so glad that the song is on this album.

It's a pretty comprehensive package choke full of hits with no filler, and it's a testament to Janet's legacy as a hitmaker throughout the past 2 decades. It would have been perfect if there was a deluxe version of the album with the 2CDs plus a DVD of all the music videos. Nevertheless, it's still a fantastic collection.

Here's the tracklist in full:

Disc 1
1. What Have You Done For Me Lately
2. Nasty
3. When I Think Of You
4. Control
5. Let's Wait A While
6. The Pleasure Principle
7. Diamonds [with Herp Albert]
8. Miss You Much
9. Rhythm Nation
10. Escapade
11. Alright
12. Come Back To Me
13. Black Cat
14. Love Will Never Do (Without You)
15. The Best Things In Life Are Free [with Luther Vandross]
16. That's The Way Love Goes

Disc 2
1. If
2. Again
3. Because Of Love
4. Any Time, Any Place
5. Scream [with Michael Jackson]
6. Runaway
7. Got 'Til It's Gone [featuring Q-Tip]
8. Together Again
9. I Get Lonely
10. Go Deep
11. What's It Gonna Be?! [with Busta Rhymes]
12. Doesn't Really Matter
13. All For You
14. Someone To Call My Lover
15. All Nite (Don't Stop)
16. Call On Me
17. Feedback
18. Make Me


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

This Is It.

Sorry for the long absence, I've been away and busy with work. But that hasn't prevented me from watching This Is It three times in three days! Yes, so the long-awaited time has come, and we finally get to see MJ behind-the-scenes, hard at work preparing for the concerts.

The movie opened worldwide on 28th October, but was only released in Singapore on the 29th. I assume it's because of the time difference that led to us having the movie one day late. Nevertheless, Sony Pictures held a series of gala premieres at various theatres islandwide, and I attended the one at Cathay Cineleisure.

Watching it for the first time, I went in with some expectations - Would it be sad? Would I cry? Would MJ sing live? Would MJ moonwalk? Would it be as good as ten years ago? As a result, I was worrying too much to really enjoy it.

The first thing I noticed was how thin MJ was, especially in the opening number, Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', as he was wearing skinny jeans. His clothes were mostly quite slim cut and they made him even slimmer. I particularly loved the pointy shoulder pads jacket and the shimmering gold pants.

Even though he was slim, he looked strong and healthy. He was obviously holding back and going through the motions just to get a feel of the moves, but you could see that once the arena is filled with 20,000 screaming fans, MJ would have no problem going all out and executing the moves like he did 20 years ago.

He certainly didn't look like he was about to die, so I wouldn't say that Kenny Ortega and team should have noticed and intervened before it was too late. That leads to the logical conclusion that if MJ was healthy, strong and far from being on the brink of death, he must have been murdered then. It's a strong proposition, but I would not like to discuss that here or now.

The other thing I noticed was how great MJ sounded live. I was very disappointed that he lip-synched a lot of the numbers during the HIStory tour, so I was really hoping that he would sing live this time, especially if This Is It is going to be watched by so many million people around the world, much more than what the original 50 concerts would have been watched by. So it was with great, great relief to find that MJ was singing live again. And boy did he sound good live.

Some of the numbers sounded close to the studio recordings, but I'm inclined to believe they were sung live. It could be due to the fact that the sound was mixed and cut and pasted from different rehearsals/performances of the song, so there are some parts where the mouth didn't really correspond to the vocals. But overall, it was a very good editing job.

To me, the best part was hearing MJ's voice again. We haven't had much new music since Invincible, so this is like 2 hours of new MJ vocals. I always felt that singing is MJ's most under-rated quality, so this was a good time for people to discover how good a vocalist MJ really is. There's a lot of technique involved in singing in different styles and projecting the voice and dancing, and MJ was fantastic at that.

I was also very happy with how good the music sounded. The sound recording was superb, top notch. You know how live music always doesn't sound as good as the albums, but this was all live, and it sounded really great.

It was also great that they tweaked the musical arrangements a little, for example on Jam, making it funkier and more updated. They also changed the some of the cues and added interludes, for example, the Threatened musical interlude at the end of Thriller. This makes the concert fresh and not just a lazy rehash of the past tours.

And of course, there's also the short films. The 3D Thriller clip, the extended Smooth Criminal sequence where MJ shot footage to be integrated into old films, the Earth Song mini movie, the They Don't Care About Us army - they're all fantastic and look professionally shot, not some low budget filler clips. You can really see how MJ was creatively flourishing and having grand visions for these concerts.

Then there were the sets. The Thriller graveyard set, the scaffolding for The Way You Make Me Feel, the bulldozer at the end of Earth Song (the one shown in the movie was an animation but we can visualise how it will look like), they're all very elaborate and enhance the experience.

MJ really is a visionary and when he said he wanted to "take people to places they haven't been before", he wasn't kidding. These have got to be the most ambitious and forward-looking concerts at this point in time. When he said that he couldn't sleep because God kept channeling him ideas at night, and if he wasn't there to receive there because God might give them to Prince, you know how serious he was. He really did put in everything for this and there is no way he wasn't ready to perform.

A lot of my friends have seen the movie and they all SMS-ed me after that, telling me how amazing it was, how they will miss MJ's talent, how they're converted and have now become fans, how genius MJ was and so on.

Some fans are protesting and saying that This Is Not It, and the film doesn't show MJ when he was falling ill and getting skinnier by the day. We can't tell whether this is true because there's no linear timeline, and we don't know how many scenes from the movie were from the earlier or later rehearsals. But I would say I'm just glad that this movie exists, and it does provide closure for a fan like me. I'm happy knowing that MJ died doing what he loved best - creating and performing on stage.

I'm also happy that the movie showed a professional side of MJ that most non-fans don't know. I've read stories of how professional MJ is in the studio, how he takes hours to warm up just to put 5 minutes of vocals on tape, how he writes and re-writes just to make it perfect. But to most other people, they only know the scandal-ridden side of him, or the stage persona when he performed live or in the music videos.

This movie showed them that MJ is a human being with real emotions - the part where he was "complaining" about the earpiece being too loud was particularly awkward to watch - he is a perfectionist who demands things to be done just the way he envisioned it (the keyboard rehearsal scene during The Way You Make Me Feel), and his politeness and kind nature (giving orders "with love, L-O-V-E").

Some reviews said that it would have been "a helluva concert", and I agree. This Is It is so much grander in scale and vision than any tour MJ had done, and much bigger than anything anyone is doing right now, even U2. My initial regret was that we didn't get to see at least one full concert before MJ died, but this movie helped a lot. We still don't get to see MJ in the costumes, maybe they'll include it in the DVD, if there ever were photographs of the fitting.

So since the movie has been released last Wednesday, it has earned US$101 million worldwide. The US domestic figure was smaller than expected (US$32.5 million), but it was always going to be a bigger hit overseas, where MJ's fanbase is much bigger and loyal. So while it looks unlikely to top my US$600 million prediction, it still looks to gross at least half of that. And my prediction about Sony Pictures extending its run beyond the 2 weeks has come true - it will now be in cinemas for a few more weeks at least.

As for the soundtrack, it is not going to break the 2.4 million first week sales currently held by NSYNC, as I predicted, because instead of a true soundtrack to the movie with new live vocals, it is simply mostly a rehash of a greatest hits compilation. The album merely arranges the songs in the way they appear in the movie, and throwing in one "new" song (the title track), three demos from the Thriller album, and the spoken poem Planet Earth.

The Number Ones compilation is the biggest selling album in the US this year (and also Top Ten in many other countries), so you can't fault the fans for being lukewarm to this album. Nevertheless, it is still expected to top the US charts with around 300,000 copies sold, giving MJ his sixth solo #1 album. In the UK, the album debuted at just #3.

In Singapore, there's a jewelcase 1CD version being sold at 7-11 stores islandwide, in addition to the normal 2CD version. This 1CD version carries a retail price of $13.90 compared to the normal one (around $25), but it doesn't contain the second disc of demos and the poem, so there's really not much of a selling point.

On the second disc, the Beat It demo is really good and it makes the album worth it. It's done acapella and you can hear all the harmonies on the track. Another demonstration of how good MJ can sing.

So This Is It. Well, not really. The DVD will be out in January and it's been reported that Kenny Ortega will add two to three hours of bonus material and rehearsals onto the disc. Give me all 100 hours of footage, I don't mind. I want to see the costumes and more behind-the-scenes stuff, like how MJ worked with the music director to come up with the new arrangements. I also want to see the new sequences in full, with 3D specs if possible. And more footage of MJ rehearsing with the dancers. There's so much more to show.

The initial excitement has gone and there will be a lull till January. MJ will still be honoured at these upcoming music awards shows:

- American Music Awards (22 Nov): nominated for 5 awards including Artist Of The Year
- Soul Train Awards (29 Nov): Entertainer Of The Year

The MTV EMAs are taking place this week (5 Nov), who knows they might just do something to honour MJ again? And not forgetting the Grammy Awards, which is bound to highlight MJ again. After all, he won a record-breaking 8 Grammys in 1984.

So there's still plenty of love for MJ. Let's hope This Is It continues to do well, and many more people are exposed to MJ's genius. R.I.P. Michael.