A Rose is Still A Rose: Checking for Aretha Franklin’s 90s and 00s material

OG diva and “the undisputed Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin announced earlier this week she was hanging up her microphone after one final album of originals this year, which will be produced by another influential music legend no less, Stevie Wonder.

For a generation that didn’t grow up with Aretha topping the charts and being a mainstay in the spotlight, she is probably better known for that wig-snatching gif and various viral moments. There’s the iconic Inauguration Hat memes and that time we gagged at Cissy Houston rolling her eyes and half-arsing her way through Aretha’s performance of ‘Rolling In The Deep’. The internet has also kept a catalogue of her shadiest moments like when she snatched her arm away from Patti Labelle when the singer tried to congratulate her and let’s not forget that masterclass in top shelf shade when Aretha was asked her opinion on Taylor Swift and only offered: “Okay… um. Great gowns. Beautiful gowns.”

In a time where ‘icon’, ‘diva’ and ‘queen’ titles are thrown at anyone with a big enough Gay Twitter following, I like to think that individuals of cultural impact on Aretha’s stratosphere (of which there aren’t many) are still regarded with a special, untouchable kind of status.

When we think of Aretha Franklin, we think ‘Empress Diva of Soul with zero fucks to give’, we think of ‘Respect‘, we think of ‘Think‘, we think of the 98’ VH1 Divas Live concert (which also featured other greats like Mariah, Celine, Shania, Gloria Estefan and Carole King). But we don’t seem to check for the latter part of her career as much. Sure she’s not as active as she was in her hey-day but Aunt ReRe was definitely still putting down some moments in music over the last 20 years or so.

So, in light of this retirement announcement, I’ve decided to sift through some of her original records from the 90s onwards and see what we might’ve missed.

‘A Rose Is Still A Rose’ (1998)

A poetic feminist jam written and produced by Lauryn Hill especially for Aretha’s 1998 album of the same name. Now, I actually remember this one because there was a time where MTV played music videos and there was a time where music video stations played the latest hot hit by Aretha Franklin.

Looking back, this video is like the most amazingly 90s thing I’ve ever seen. Those massive bomber jackets that were a staple in mainstream R&B music videos, and Queen Aretha posted up in some of the best wigs of her career, looking like Earth Mother draped in luxurious fabrics, trilling life advice by the piano in some kind of synthetic Garden of Eden in the projects? I live.

The album, which also featured songs written by Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin, was a remarkable exercise in modernising the diva’s sound and reconnecting her with a younger audience. It remains Aretha’s most critically acclaimed and best-selling album of the 90s.

 

‘Never Gonna Break My Faith’ with Mary J. Blige (2006)

A stirring gospel anguish written by Bryan Adams for the Bobby soundtrack. This Golden Globe-nominated song is a powerful meeting of two of America’s most prominent female soul singers. It also showed us that while demand for a full album of Aretha’s originals were at an all time low, you could still 100 per cent count on her to deliver that one king-hit performance. One big performance is all it takes. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am!

 

‘Don’t Waste My Time’ – Mary J. Blige with Aretha Franklin (1999)

From Mary J. Blige‘s critically-acclaimed album Mary, this hefty, angst-filled duet where a larger-than-life Aretha urges Mary to move on from a deadbeat relationship is mostly the former diva hollering over the latter. But for lovers of this kind of over the top and gospel-derived style of singing, it really doesn’t get any better than this. The pair even picked up a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo. It really makes me yearn to see more female artists coming together and showing solidarity and sisterhood in songs.

‘Put You Up On Game’ with Fantasia (2007)

I’ve always enjoyed the back-and-forth kind of duets Aretha’s done in her career. Check the sassy and brashly 80s pop shakedown with Whitney in ‘It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be‘. Here the OG diva plays a nosy, older woman giving a young and seemingly naive-in-love Fantasia some relationship advice on a modern R&B ballad format, produced by The Underdogs.

Fantasia is without question one of the most brilliant and under-appreciated old school soul singers we have today. She is part of a dying breed and I fear almost daily that she’ll never achieve the mainstream recognition she deserves. The ad-libs at the end of this song gives us just a hint of what could have been had these ladies been able to perform this live and just jam with no restrictions.

‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’ (2003)

A pensive ballad, written and produced by Janet Jackson‘s hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, where Aretha shakes off a shady frenemy who constantly pokes at her relationship, questioning if she knows where her man’s been and what he’s up to etc. LOL. Sounds like a scene straight out of Real Housewives of Atlanta.

Despite appearing blind to his bullshit, Aretha reasons, “a little bit of my man’s sweet love is a whole lot better than none of it”. Queen of Drama and Real Talk.

‘Mary Goes Round’ (1991)

Aretha’s brief and poorly-received foray into New Jack Swing is probably best left in the crypt of the 90s but this What You See Is What You Sweat (I know right?!) album track is nonetheless an interesting showcase of what happens when you infuse her style of spirited soul with the exuberant, dominant dance music style of the time. Here ReRe manages to throw everything at you, from deep growls to even a hint of vampy dance captain realness in the spoken word bits (“Turn the corner right! Turn the corner left!”). Very much a product of its time, as they would say.

 

Until next time, you can catch me tweeting here at @feedlimmy.

 

Discography: Girls Aloud “Chemistry”

Hindsight is a bitch. If I had known that Girls Aloud‘s 2006 promo trip was my only chance to ever see them in Australia, I would’ve dragged my arse out of Editorial English for this life-changing fanboi moment.

The fabulous five flew down here virtually unknown to promote Chemistry to little effect or interest from the Australian public. But, of course, you’ll always get the nutters who knows exactly where Cheryl Tweedy stood when they posed for their mX photo shoot in Melbourne Central.

I am not claiming to be one of those said nutters.

Sounds like…
Chemistry has always been the fan favourite. Sonically, Xenomania took the Girls on a glamour power-pop trip and dressed them in ostentatious lyrics fitting of young London scene queens.

The focus has been on more playful, unconventional pop song structures, cross-breeding elements of Southern rock with nu-disco, bossa nova and even R&B.

There are noticeably fewer pop ballads this time around but where the tempo drops, it is justified. The tear-jerking torch ballad ‘Whole Lotta History’ was a highlight, as was Nadine‘s ‘No Regrets’ – a fitting nouveau bossa nova piece for that last cocktail at the cruise ship bar.

Throw me a line…
“She’s got dreamy eyes, Lolita lips. She’s got endulating, grundulating grinding hips… she’s made seduction a work of art, a PhD with her legs apart.” – ‘Racy Lacey’.

Did you know?
The album’s first single, ‘Long Hot Summer’, became Girls Aloud‘s first single to miss the UK Top 5. Although it made sense as a summer single, it had always felt more like a What Will The Neighbours Say? track than a Chemistry one to me.

The Girls tried to repeat their last Christmas success with yet another cover ballad. Sadly, their rendition of Dee C. Lee‘s ‘See The Day’ failed to compare with the previous year’s hit, ‘I’ll Stand By You’, and became their lowest charting single at the time.

Funny to note that the playful album track ‘Watch Me Go’ was co-written by JC Chasez. He could’ve used with some Xenomania tracks himself.

Chemistry (2005)
Key tracks: ‘Biology’, ‘Swinging London Town’, ‘Whole Lotta History’ and ‘Waiting’
Chart performance: UK #11, Europe #14.

Read our Girls Aloud Discography:
“What Will The Neighbours Say?”
“Sound of The Underground”

Discography: Girls Aloud “What Will The Neighbours Say?”

Matching silver outfits I can forgive but this smacking of bottle tan and glorious WAG class – I just can’t.

Even though this was their sophomore album, What Will The Neighbours Say? is what most Girls Aloud fans would hold up as the mother record. It was with this album that they followed up their chart success and declared their brazen sound to the world.

At this point, Girls Aloud still had to wrestle with the “manufactured pop band” tag but the fact that they had overcome the dreaded sophomore slump with all four singles making the UK Top 5 is prove they were doing something right.

Sounds like…
Unlike their debut, which was a compromise of Xenomania productions and contributions from predictable pop purveyours, What Will The Neighbours Say? is a full-fledged Xenomania girl pop album. It was energy from the word ‘go’ with the first two singles – ‘The Show’ and ‘Love Machine’ – carefully offset with the tenderness of some key ballads.

Much as they drown the mood, down-tempos like ‘Deadlines & Diets’ and Nicola Roberts‘ ‘I Say A Prayer For You’ became a welcomed breather from the hyper-petulant tracks. For the most part, What Will The Neighbours Say? foists a collage of musical styles: there’s bossa nova chic colliding with garage rock on ‘Here We Go’, grinding Van Halen-esque guitars over techno for ‘Wake Me Up’, and 80s electro balladry on ‘Big Brother’.

Throw me a line…
“It started with a drink, that baby soon became a waterfall, but then my face turned pink, cause I believed him when he said he’d call…” – ‘Real Life’.

Did you know?
What Will The Neighbours Say? is essentially a fitting of hand-me-down tracks. Album track ‘Here We Go’ was first recorded by Lene (from Aqua) for her solo album Play With Me, Britney was first offered the frenetic ‘Graffiti My Soul’ and ‘Deadlines and Diets’ was released four years earlier by Xenomania‘s prized songwriter, Miranda Cooper (under the alias Moonbaby).

What Will The Neighbours Say? (2004)
Chart performance:
UK #6, Europe #9.
Key tracks: ‘Love Machine’, ‘Wake Me Up’, ‘Real Life’ and ‘Thank Me Daddy’.

Read our Girls Aloud Discography: “Sound of The Underground”

Discography: Girls Aloud “Sound of The Underground”

There was a brief moment in history when Girls Aloud music sounded precocious and too eager to please.

Behind the eight-year discography and now solidified reputation as purveyors of a distinct pop sound miles ahead of other pop groups, you’ll find that Girls Aloud’s debut could’ve taken the band in a different direction all together.

Sounds like…
Sound of The Underground was a text book example of what every girl band’s pop debut should sound like – spunky and rebellious, with a touch of sensitivity – referencing an array of familiar musical influences. There’s a smattering of everything from Avril-styled pop to nu-disco, and even elements of The Bangles and Blondie.

Throw me a line…
“Hell I don’t need no beauty sleep, no need to count those dirty sheep. And I don’t need no bedtime prayer, cause frankly I don’t even care.” – ‘No Good Advice’.

Did you know?
Sound of The Underground is the only Girls Aloud album to date that wasn’t wholly produced by Xenomania– the hit makers were originally only commissioned for the two singles (‘Sound of The Underground’ and ‘No Good Advice’) but upon Brian Higgins’ impression, the label included four more tracks. Therefore, giving the album a more consistent sound.

This album features some contributions from former pop group alumnus: Lene from Aqua co-wrote ‘No good Advice’, Brian McFadden penned the vivacious ‘Girls Allowed’, and Edele Lynch of B*Witched wrote co-wrote ‘Some Kind of Miracle’.

3/5

Sound of The Underground (2003)
Chart performance: UK #2
Key tracks: ‘Sound of The Underground’, ‘Life Got Cold’, ‘Some Kind of Miracle’ and ‘Don’t Want You Back’

Read our Girls Aloud Discography: “What Will The Neighbours Say?”

Discography: Natalie Imbruglia

Natalie Imbruglia has been releasing music sporadically over the last ten years.

She may not have basked in the limelight long, or as frequently, enough for most folks to explore her recording career – but the tide could well be turning now with her upcoming gig as an X Factor judge.

Here are three best moments in Imbruglia’s career:

1) ‘Torn’

This will forever be known as her signature track. How can one possibly top something as career-defining as ‘Torn’?

2) White Lillies Island

Her darker sophomore. Her The Tension & The Spark, her Mistaken Identity as well if you will. This was the album that solidified Imbruglia’s core fan base and separated them from fair-weather ‘Torn’ fans.

3) Counting Down The Days

The pop planets momentarily aligned for Imbruglia. Counting Down The Days raced to the top of the UK charts in 2005 and became her biggest selling album there. At the time Imbruglia was managed by Hugh Goldsmith, who had guided Atomic Kitten‘s career, so this was as close to the pop journo’s definition of a comeback as she has ever gotten.

Feedlimmy’s Top 5 Natalie Imbruglia Songs

Let’s omit the obvious ‘Torn’ from the list and check out the other favourites.

1)  ‘Counting Down The Days’

2) ‘Goodbye’

3) ‘Big Mistake’

4) ‘Want (Single Mix)’

5) ‘Smoke’

Footnote:

Let’s pretend Come To Life didn’t happen and hope the Aussie X-Factor gig will push Imbruglia to release another album toute suite.

Discography: Brandy

Maybe it’s just the company I keep, but people snigger when I gush about Brandy.

Are Australians, in general, just indifferent to her music and accomplishments? We’re not talking about some garden variety female R&B singer here. Don’t get it twisted – this is not Ashanti‘s discography.

We’re looking at one of the best-selling female recording artists in American music history. And while she’s not selling out arenas and dusting her 16 Grammys, Brandy has sold over 25 million albums worldwide and has become one of the most respected R&B vocalists of her generation.

Well, I respect her anyway. The appeal with Brandy, for me, is her warm raspy vocals and the layers of harmonies she puts into every track.

She doesn’t have to belt to let you know she can sing. But alright, if you insist…

Why we stopped caring:

There’s nothing worst than a pop star becoming irrelevant. That’s when you start doing crazy shit like whoring yourself on Celebrity Masterchef and take it personally when you’re only ask to join the choir for the latest charity single.

After she dropped the biggest selling album of her career, Never Say Never, Brandy nicked off for four years to catch up on life and since then, she’s never quite recalled the success of her 90s hey day.

While she was still pulling in prolific hit makers and churning quality tracks, growing competition from stronger R&B female artists who had frequent pop crossovers meant Brandy was getting pushed out of the picture.

Why you should care:

1) ‘Boy Is Mine’

The Grammy-winning duet with Monica that had every girl and queen singing into their hair brush and snapping their neck at their best friend.

This song turned Brandy into a household name and I was convinced that this was truly the best female duet I’ve ever heard until I discovered Donna Summer and Barbra‘s ‘No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)’.

2) Afrodisiac

This is the one Brandy album that’s had more critically acclaimed whispers than any other. Sure, it sold squat all but it was Brandy at her most earnest and raw.

This was also her first and only album to date that didn’t feature any material by Darkchild. It was brazen betrayal given that Brandy was to Darkchild what Aaliyah was to Timbaland – loyal muses who had risen in the game with these hit producers.

3) Full Moon

The defining album of my high school years. While most teens went through an angsty rock phase, I had ‘What About Us?’ and ‘I Thought’ on repeat. Full Moon was Brandy doing future music in 2002 – a combination of cold synthetic sounds, thumping beats and warm vocals.

Feed Limmy’s Top 5 Brandy Songs

1) ‘Who I Am’

2) ‘Right Here (Departed)’

3) ‘Boy Is Mine’

4) ‘What About Us?’

5) ‘Finally’

Discography: Anggun

No introduction required for fellow Indonesians and Francophiles – the diva of adult contemporary, aptly known as Anggun, has been charming both the Asian and European market for over 10 years now.

The Indonesian native – best known for her crossover hit ‘Snow In The Sahara’ – is one of the rare few pop artists who puts out an album in three different languages – Indonesian, English and French.

Here are three highlights from the Anggun discography:

1) ‘Snow In The Sahara’

The breakthrough hit that launched her in America, Europe and other parts of Asia.

I remember seeing the music video on MTV in Malaysia when I was younger and thinking, ‘wow! She’s Asian and she’s on the American MTV countdown?’ Amazement.

2) Luminescence

The one Anggun album that I strongly connected with. The lush ballads like ‘Breathe In Water’ and ‘Surrender’ make for lovely chill out tunes.

I stumbled across Luminescence while I was browsing at a music store in Malaysia four years ago and to be honest, it never crossed my mind that Anggun was still making music. You just don’t hear about her in Australia.

Check out the sultry ‘Saviour’/’Cesse La Pluie’ video from this album.

3) Her cover of ‘Life On Mars’

Not everyone can pull off a Bowie standard but Anggun delivers ‘Life On Mars’ with great elegance. The best part was hearing this spellbinding interpretation with ethnic Javanese percussion and pipes – a distinct Anggun sound in itself.

Footnote:

The misguided ‘modern’ R&B album Elevation (2008) is an awkward blemish on what would’ve been a respectable world-class discography.

There’s something terribly off-putting about a record that tries too hard to be hip.