The Piano Guys have produced musical and video gems that mash up classical themes with pop songs, making their YouTube channel one of the most visited on the planet and bringing the group a recording deal with Sony Masterworks. This self-titled set, their major-label debut, features their amazing ten-handed take on One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful," the recording and video that first vaulted the Piano Guys to international fame.
Steve Leggett, Rovi
Comprised of 18 tracks culled from the singer/composer’s first three decades, The Very Best of Enya was pieced together by the artist herself, along with longtime collaborators Nicky and Roma Ryan. Luckily, the trio seems enamored by most of the same songs that the general public is, resulting in one of those rare “greatest-hits” collections that goes deep without depriving the listener of the essentials. With tunes like "Orinoco Flow," "Caribbean Blue," and "Book of Days" in the pot and out of the way, it’s easier to appreciate hidden gems like "Cursum Perficio," "Boadicea," "Trains and Winter Rains," and "Anywhere Is." Also notable is the inclusion of "May It Be" and a previously unreleased version of "Aníron (I Desire)," both of which originally appeared on the soundtrack for the first chapter of Peter Jackson’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy.
James Christopher Monger, Rovi
Michael Crétu's attempt at fusing everything from easy listening sex music and hip-hop rhythms to centuries-old Gregorian chants couldn't have been more designed to tweak the nose of high art, a joyously crass stab straight at a mainstream, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars. The result is something that shouldn't exist, but in its own way results in as much of a cultural scramble and explosion as anything Public Enemy were doing around the same time, crossing over the Euro-disco and new age spheres with style. Credit Crétu for an open ear for whatever works, which is precisely why "Sadeness," the first part of a longer track called "Principles of Lust," turned into a fluke worldwide hit. Snippets of monks invoking the Almighty effortlessly glide in and out of a polite but still strong breakbeat, shimmering, atmospheric synth and flute lines and a Frenchwoman whispering in a way that sounds distinctly more carnal than spiritual (as her gasps for breath elsewhere make clear). Guitar and male vocals add to the album version's try-anything-that-works approach, as do attempts at shuffling jazz beats and horns. If nothing quite equals that prime moment elsewhere on the album, MCMXC A.D. still trips out on the possibilities as it can, right from the opening "Voice of Enigma," inviting all listeners to sit back, relax, and take a gentle trip. Crétu certainly isn't trying to hide anything -- "Callas Went Away" goes right ahead and adds a sample of Maria Callas herself to the chirping birds and soft beats, while elsewhere the flutes, beats, monks, and French voices merrily go about their glossy business. About the only thing missing is the kitchen sink, making the entire album the "MacArthur Park" of its day.
Ned Raggett, Rovi
Songs from the Heart is the fifth offering from the Celtic Woman quintet. With some alternating membership, it sticks close to producer and arranger David Downes' (of "Riverdance" fame) vision/formula: these women sing contemporary and traditional Celtic songs and well-known standards backed by a choir, Celtic folk instruments -- bodhran, fiddle, Uilleann pipes, and bagpipes -- a full backing band, and an orchestra. Lisa Kelly does a tender reading of of Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” as an opener, while the entire group participates in an overblown version of “Amazing Grace,” complete with bagpipes. There is a lovely version of the traditional ballad “Nil Sé’n Lá” once more sung by the quintet with killer bodhran playing by Ray Fean. The song selection here is somewhat more eclectic than on previous albums, as evidenced by a complex, spit-shined and polished take on the Phil Collins-penned Disney tune “You’ll Be in My Heart” for an Alex Sharpe solo, the British Isles standard “My Lagan Love,” and even Dvorák’s “Non C’è Più.”
Thom Jurek, Rovi
Calling Shepherd Moons a near carbon copy of Watermark puts it quite mildly. Like Watermark, Shepherd Moons opens with the title track, a calm instrumental, has another brief instrumental titled after a Dora Saint book smack in the middle ("No Holly for Miss Quinn"), and concludes with a number incorporating a striking uilleann pipes solo, "Smaointe...." In general, Enya's own musical style and work remains the same, again assisted on production by Nicky Ryan and with lyrics by Roma Ryan. Shepherd Moons does have one key factor that's also carried over from Watermark -- it's quite good listening. Though the total continuity means that those who enjoy her work will again be pleased and those who dislike it won't change their minds, in terms of finding her own vision and sticking with it, Enya has increasingly polished and refined her work to a strong, elegant degree. "Caribbean Blue," the lead single, avoids repeating the successful formula of "Orinoco Flow" by means of its waltz time -- a subtle enough change, but one that colors and drives the overall composition and performance, the closest Enya might ever get to a dance number. Some songs call to mind traditional Irish music even more strongly than much of her earlier work, while two other tracks are haunting rearrangements of old, traditional numbers. With her trademark understated drama in full flow many other places, especially on the wonderful "Book of Days" (replaced on later pressings with an English language version done for the film Far and Away), Enya shows herself to still have it, to grand effect.
Ned Raggett, Rovi
Time after time, inspirational stalwarts Selah refuse to fix what ain't broken. You could transfer the trio's entire discography to an iPod, put the device on shuffle mode, and not know where each song belongs in their trajectory. And Selah would rather have it that way: "You Deliver Me", their sixth full-length in a decade, bears all the hallmarks of past glories: serene piano-based hymns, inspirational ballads, the occasional barnstorming praise song, and, of course, the requisite African-tinged number. Play for play, this is the Selah that has sold more than two million albums, won award after award, and declined to pander to CCM's worldly fluctuations. There's one exception, and it's bound to leave fans nonplussed: inexplicably, Selah decided to take Brooke Fraser's "Hosanna," a popular Hillsong anthem, and do absolutely nothing with it: it's a near replica of the original, an alterna-rock piece that, save for some vocal interplay between Todd Smith and Amy Perry, sounds completely out of character for the threesome. Barring that, Selah is perhaps the only "unoriginal" true original left in Christian music, a group that sticks to its classic guns while everyone else chases the latest flavor of the moment.
Andree Farias, Rovi
Thanks to its distinct, downright catchy single "Orinoco Flow," which amusingly referenced both her record-company boss Rob Dickins and co-producer Ross Cullum in the lyrics, Enya's second album Watermark established her as the unexpected queen of gentle, Celtic-tinged new age music. To be sure, her success was as much due to marketing a niche audience in later years equally in love with Yanni and Michael Flatley's Irish dancing, but Enya's rarely given a sense of pandering in her work. She does what she does, just as she did before her fame. (Admittedly, avoiding overblown concerts run constantly on PBS hasn't hurt.) Indeed, the subtlety that characterizes her work at her best dominates Watermark, with the lovely title track, her multi-tracked voice gently swooping among the lead piano, and strings like a softly haunting ghost, as fine an example as any. "Orinoco Flow" itself, for all its implicit dramatics, gently charges instead of piling things on, while the organ-led "On Your Shore" feels like a hushed church piece. Elsewhere, meanwhile, Enya lets in a darkness not overly present on The Celts, resulting in work even more appropriate for a moody soundtrack than that album. "Cursum Perficio," with her steady chanting-via-overdub of the title phrase, gets more sweeping and passionate as the song progresses, matched in slightly calmer results with the equally compelling "The Longships." "Storms in Africa," meanwhile, uses drums from Chris Hughes to add to the understated, evocative fire of the song, which certainly lives up to its name. Watermark ends with a fascinating piece, "Na Laetha Geal M'Oige," where fellow Irish modern/traditional fusion artist Davy Spillane adds a gripping, heartbreaking uilleann pipe solo to the otherwise calm synth-based performance. It's a perfect combination of timelessness and technology, an appropriate end to this fine album.
Ned Raggett, Rovi
Award-winning praise & worship leader Byron Cage recorded 2009's Faithful to Believe at Second Ebenezer Church in his native Detroit. The former music director for the city's Greater Grace Temple, Cage was joined by special guests Tye Tribbett, Karen Clark-Sheard, and Marvin L. Winans, as well as a top-notch group of Detroit area choir members and instrumentalists. Longtime fans of Cage's spirited blend of high-energy gospel jams and soaring, emotive balladry will not be disappointed. [A DVD version of the live performance was released in 2009.]
James Christopher Monger, Rovi