Friday, March 19, 2004

Britney is hazardous to your (musical) health

—Originally published 3.19.04

Please don't tell anyone, but I kinda, sorta think that Britney Spears song "Toxic" is, well ... catchy.

Then again, why shouldn't I? It's essentially a commercial jingle, only instead of shilling Pepsi, Spears is trying to resuscitate a flagging career. Ms. (or is it Mrs.?) I'm a Woman grabs headlines these days just for being Britney Spears (kissing Madonna, getting married, having sex, etc.) -- which have nothing to do with anything she's actually produced.

Thus it's disturbing "Toxic" hit No. 9 this week on Billboard's Hot 100. If this is what passes for tops of the pops, who in the world are we going to induct into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25 years from now?

It's probably inaccurate to even label "Toxic" a Spears song, though, because she had very little -- if anything -- to do with its creation. The list of "collaborators" on her latest album, "In the Zone," is a mile long. And while Spears talks all the time about her "writing," I wonder how much of her actual input ends up in the final product. (In a Rolling Stone interview last year, she couldn't remember the working title for a song Moby contributed to her album.)

And beyond that, Spears just flat-out cannot sing. Think back to all her hits you've heard: Can you remember what her real voice sounds like? No. The aforementioned army of producers (intelligently) buries her mediocre vocals behind layers of backup singers and techno wizardry. Elvis Presley and The Beatles are the two most overrated pop acts of all time, but at least they could sing.

I'm going to stop the Spears rant here, because far be it from me to keep a young woman from selling her body -- I mean, soul -- no, wait, I mean voice -- to make a buck. More power to her, but I'm not buying.

Just to show I'm not a total curmudgeon, however, I scanned through my CDs and picked out some of my favorite female artists for your listening pleasure:

• PJ Harvey -- Unquestionably my all-time favorite, Ms. Polly Jean rocks out like no other woman I've ever heard. Her voice shifts from beautiful to powerful to ear-splitting at a moment's notice, and her minimalist guitar riffs are a perfect complement. She is without question the best rock artist you've never heard of. Recommended listening: 2000's "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea."

• Janis Joplin -- Speaking of hall of famers, everyone knows this tragic story. Drug abuse led to her untimely death, but while she lasted, Joplin was fabulous. Recommended listening: Any of her "essential" or "greatest hits" collections are a good starting point.

• Meg White -- She's not a great singer and definitely not a great drummer, but without her, there would be no White Stripes. Her beats, though simple, really aren't bad and they balance out bandmate Jack White's frantic guitar to form one of my favorite bands. Recommended listening: 2003's "Elephant" is her best work yet behind the set. Plus, she takes the mic for "In the Cold, Cold, Night."

-- Sleater-Kinney -- I was late to this party, just coming across the female punk trio last summer when they opened for Pearl Jam. I now have all but one of their albums. S-K's piercing vocals usually makes this a love-'em-or-hate-'em situation. Recommended listening: Although it's the critics' least favorite, 2000's "All Hands on the Bad One" is the most "mainstream" of the group's albums and a good place to start.

-- Lucinda Williams -- This phenomenal talent provides a mix of rock, blues and country that coalesces into simply stellar work. Get rid of your Sheryl Crow CDs and start listening to a far superior artist of the same ilk. Recommended listening: The 1998 classic "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."

• Macy Gray -- History may judge her a one-hit wonder, but there's a lot more to this soul singer with the sandpaper voice than "I Try." She refreshingly blends hip-hop with Motown to create a sound unlike anything else you'll hear in the genre. Recommended listening: Her 1997 debut "On How Life Is."

• Beyonce -- A pop star with actual talent. You may be sick of hearing her on the radio and seeing her on TV (that I can't imagine), but she's everything Spears pretends to be and more. It's still too poppy for my taste, but Beyonce's the best of the bunch, hands down. Recommended listening: Last year's "Dangerously in Love," for the five people that don't own it already.

• And for some local flavor, go see Lives of Reily tonight at 6:30 in The Alley. Brooke Lundy Reily and her husband, Gavin, have real rock and roll chops. Recommended listening: Their 2003 self-titled debut album, recorded in the living room of their Aiken home.

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