Album: Sade - Promise (1985)
Song: Is it a Crime
This vocal performance on this track is absolutely spine chilling.
Most people are probably familiar with Sade's track "Smooth Operator", but I couldn't have told you any of her other tracks, which is a damn shame, as it turned out.
Aside from the phenomenal music, the most notable thing about Sade is the vocalist, Sade Adu. Her performance and command over her voice send shivers across my torso. If the human voice is an instrument, this is an absolute showcase of how it can be used to portray emotion through song. The lyrics, combined with the very deliberate pronunciations take the listener along a wave of human feeling. I get those chills you get right before you spring in to action. Maybe it's like how yawning is contagious...
Sade is one of the few female vocalists who can powerfully sing in a lower range. Her actual speaking voice is surprisingly low, so this is no doubt a natural thing for her to do. As a listener though, we are treated to one of the velvetiest vocal performances I can recall. That would already be noteworthy if it were not also for the performance itself. You could not ask for a better singer to be lead in a jazz group like this.
Interestingly, on this album (and all of her albums) she worked with Andrew Hale, who was the composer of the LA Noire soundtrack in 2011, which was quite notable for it's similar smooth jazz feel. This track, though arranged by Sade, was actually written by Andrew Hale, and can almost act as a proto LA Noire song. And it shows!
Only this came out 25 years earlier... To think, the only reason I heard of this album at all was because of the Macintosh Plus Floral Shoppe Vaporwave album, which heavily sampled many of the tracks. Agree with it or not, there is something to be said about filesharing music, and culture. 30 years later, this song can still impact people.
Album: Sandy Lam - City Touch - Part I - City Rhythm (1988)
Song: Late Night Solitude (三更夜半)
Until recently, I had no idea that there was a prominent Cantonese pop scene in the 80s. You hear a lot about J-Pop in the west, but never will you hear of "Cantopop". Among the many prolific artists in the genre, none rise higher than Sandy Lam in terms of melody, energy and production. And wouldn't you know it, she is still putting out albums today that are still very good and worth checking out (I suggest looking for her 2012 album Gaia, if you are curious).
But my focus for this post is to focus on her most energetic track, "三更夜半" which translates to either "Late Night Solitude" or "In the Midst of the Night". The reason I make a big deal about that is because, surprisingly, this entire album was part of a multi-album series of connected concept albums that Wikipedia describes as, "portraying a surreal young urban professional woman in a realistic city of the late 80s."
This track in particular seems to touch on a very nuanced and cultural aspect of being a woman of strong tradition in Hong Kong who is torn between needing to keep a her perceived high social status while desperately wishing to seek a romance. I am positive a lot of this concept is lost in culture and translation, but from the sound of the performance, there is genuine feeling and conflict. It's a fascinating angle that you pretty much never see any pop music attempting to tackle.
But what of the music? I am pleased to say that even on the other side of the world, no one could resist the urge to use drum machines and synths galore. This entire track rests on a cloud of mysterious dissonant jazzy electric key chords, while being constantly peppered by an exceptionally meaty synth bass and low bitrate sampled brass stabs. It actually has a very 90s vibe to it, while still keeping a lot of 80s aesthetics.
But the real show stopper here are the vocals. Sandy Lam has an unbelievably sultry voice, and is excellent at conveying emotion, even without being able to translate the words. The entire album is sung in the Cantonese language, which is actually one of the prettiest languages in my opinion. Very apparent when you hear it wielded by such a strong performance. The music video here, too, has a surprisingly high quality to it. It is very refreshing to see a pop star sing about sex without having to get naked on film, or show off body parts, and still come off sexy as hell.
It might not be in a language you can understand, but still the language of music speaks very strongly through this track. Combined with knowledge of the high lyrical content, this track seems to be something you can translate by feel.
Cantopop... Who knew. Well, millions of people in Hong Kong, at least.