Every so often, a piece of music comes along that defines a moment in popular culture history: Johann Strauss' operetta Die Fledermaus did this in Vienna in the 1870s; Jerome Kern's Show Boat did it for Broadway musicals of the 1920s; and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album served this purpose for the era of psychedelic music in the 1960s. Saturday Night Fever, although hardly as prodigious an artistic achievement as those precursors, was precisely that kind of musical phenomenon for the second half of the '70s -- ironically, at the time before its release, the disco boom had seemingly run its course, primarily in Europe, and was confined mostly to black culture and the gay underground in America. Saturday Night Fever, as a movie and an album, and a brace of hit singles off of it, suddenly made disco explode into mainstream, working- and middle-class America with new immediacy and urgency, increasing its audience by five- or ten-fold overnight. The Bee Gees had written "Stayin' Alive" (then called "Saturday Night"), "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love," "If I Can't Have You," and "More Than a Woman" for what would have been the follow-up album to Children of the World, and they might well have enjoyed platinum-record status with that proposed album. Instead, Robert Stigwood asked them in early 1977 to contribute songs to the soundtrack of a movie that he was financing, a low-budget picture called "Tribal Rites on a Saturday Night." More out of loyalty to him than any belief in the viability of the film, they obliged; the group's involvement even survived the decision by the original director, John Avildsen, that he didn't want their music in the film -- instead, Stigwood fired him and brought in the very talented but much more agreeable John Badham, the movie's title was changed to Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees' music stayed, and the result was the biggest-selling soundtrack album in history, a 25 million copy monster whose sales, even as a more expensive double-LP, dwarfed the multi-million units sold of Children of the World and Main Course. Strangely enough, for all of the fixation of the movie and its audience on dancing, the Bee Gees' new songs were weighted equally toward ethereal ballads, which may be one reason for the soundtrack album's appeal -- it delivers what its audience expects, plus a "bonus" in the form of the soaring, lyrical romantic numbers that were, as with most ventures by the Gibb Brothers in this area, virtually irresistible. Despite the presence of other artists, Saturday Night Fever is virtually indispensable as a Bee Gees album, not just for the presence of an array of songs that were hits in their own right -- and which became the de facto soundtrack to a half-decade of pop culture history -- but because it offered the Gibb Brothers as composers as well as artists, their work recorded by Yvonne Elliman ("If I Can't Have You"), and Tavares ("More Than a Woman"), and it placed their music alongside the work of Kool & the Gang and MFSB; in essence, the layout of the soundtrack release was the culmination of everything they'd been moving toward since the Mr. Natural album. Even the presence of David Shire's "Night on Disco Mountain" and "Salsation" and Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven" don't hurt, because these set a mood and a surrounding ambience for the Bee Gees' material that makes it work even better. Heard on CD as 79 minutes of music, Saturday Night Fever comes off like an idealized commercial-free radio set of late-'70s dance music (and, in that regard, the decision to leave Rick Dees' "Disco Duck" off the soundtrack album was a good one for all concerned, except Dees). The album has been out several times on CD, including a Mobile Fidelity audiophile disc that's rarer than hen's teeth and 1995 remastered, newly annotated audiophile edition from Polydor. [Rhino issued a remastered edition in 2007.]
“The Game Has Changed” is the name of one of the tracks on Daft Punk's score to Tron: Legacy, and it also fits Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo's music for the film. When it was announced that the duo would score the sequel to one of sci-fi’s most visionary movies, it seemed like the perfect fit: Their sleek, neon-tipped, playful aesthetic springs from their love of late-‘70s and early-‘80s pop culture artifacts like "Tron". However, "Tron: Legacy" takes a much darker, more serious approach than the original film and Daft Punk follows suit, delivering soaring and ominous pieces that sound more like modern classical music than any laser tag-meets-roller disco fantasies fans may have had. Tron: Legacy's legitimacy as a score may surprise listeners unaware of Bangalter’s fine work on 2003’s Irreversible; while that score actually hews closer to Daft Punk's sound, it showed his potential for crafting music beyond the duo’s usual scope. Working with the London Orchestra, Bangalter and de Hominem-Christo fuse electronic and orchestral motifs seamlessly and strikingly. “The Game Has Changed” may be the most dramatic example: It starts with a wistful wisp of melody that sounds like a ghost in the machine, then swells of strings and brass and buzzsaw electronics submerge but never quite overtake it. Elsewhere, “Recognizer”'s pulsing horns and synths and “The Son of Flynn”'s arpeggios and strings are so tightly knit that they finish each others’ phrases. Daft Punk get in a few clever nods to Wendy Carlos' Tron score, from “The Grid”'s blobby analog synth tones to “Adagio for Tron”'s mournful sense of lost wonder. However, for most of Tron: Legacy, they’re concerned with pushing boundaries. It’s not until the score’s second half that the duo’s more typical sound emerges on “Derezzed”'s filter-disco and on “End of the Line,” where witty 8-bit sounds evoke ‘80s video games. These tracks come as welcome relief from the tension Daft Punk ratchets up on almost every other piece, particularly “Rectifier” and “C.L.U.” Encompassing the past, present, and future of sci-fi scores, Tron: Legacy feels like it grew and mutated from its origins the same way the film’s world did. Without a doubt, it’s a game-changer for Daft Punk.
At the very least, director Baz Luhrmann has created something different here. His modern-day musical weaves new cover versions of songs from the past three decades into one story about a brothel in turn of the century Paris. Its an odd combination to begin with, and the soundtrack itself bounces back and forth between very hip, modern tracks from artists at the top of their game and big Broadway-style ballads from the cast of the film. Some of the most well-respected names in music signed on for the project, including Beck, Bono, Timbaland, and David Bowie. Fatboy Slim created a "Can Can" for the next generation with "Because We Can," and Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Pink, and Mya teamed up for a surefire hit with their naughtier version of Patti Labelle's "Lady Marmalade." In stark contrast to these edgy tracks, the album spends the rest of its time on love songs from Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. They perform big-voiced, orchestra-backed versions of sentimental favorites like Elton John's "Your Song." The "Elephant Love Medley" strings together some of pop's sappiest hits, including "Up Where We Belong," "One More Night," and "I Will Always Love You." Perhaps to many people's surprise, Kidman and McGregor can really sing, and maybe in a different environment it would be easier to take these songs seriously, but standing here outside the context of the film and next to Beck covering David Bowie, they seem more comic than creative.
Brad Kohlenstein, Rovi
Unlike some other MOR pop stars, Barry Manilow never enjoyed the sort of swinging-hipster revival that made him a hot name to drop, ironically or otherwise. Incredibly enough, until the release of Ultimate Manilow in early 2002, there was no comprehensive single-disc hits package on the market -- a shockingly long wait for one of the most popular hitmakers of the '70s, hip or not (and clearly the demand was there; Ultimate Manilow entered the charts at number three). The 20 selections on Ultimate Manilow are arranged in the chronological order in which they became hits, and the emphasis here is on "hits" -- i.e., chart singles. Between 1974 and 1981, Manilow reached the Top 40 20 times, and 18 of those songs are present; the other two (minor early-'80s hits) were bumped by "Bandstand Boogie," Manilow's well-known version of the American Bandstand theme song, and "When October Goes," a track from his 1984 jazz-pop album, 2:00 AM Paradise Café. It's an extremely straightforward approach to a greatest-hits compilation, which is actually something to be commended given Arista's botched Whitney Houston best-of (where they omitted several songs to protect back-catalog sales, although that's not likely a concern with Manilow). So is anything missing? Nothing crucial; the only potential disappointment is for fans who love Manilow's detours into flamboyant, Broadway-style production numbers. The concentration on hits means that several great B-sides in that vein ("New York City Rhythm," "Riders to the Stars," "Beautiful Music," the endearingly awkward "Jump Shout Boogie") are not included. But that's really a small quibble, and there simply wasn't room for them anyhow. Ultimate Manilow lives up to its title by including everything a casual fan would want. The only question is, what took so long?
Steve Huey, Rovi
The soundtrack to Christina Aguilera's silver screen debut Burlesque shines the spotlight on Xtina, who is in full-bore diva mode -- a return to the splashy swing of Back to Basics after the robotic R&B of Bionic. Of course, many of her collaborators from Bionic remain on Burlesque: Tricky Stewart is responsible for the glitzy dance, and Sia Furler co-writes the ballads, their contributions slotted between two Cher songs designed to push the narrative forward, two Etta James covers, a slice of heavy camp in the mincing “But I’m a Good Girl,” and a Nicole Scherzinger co-written interpolation of Marilyn Manson's “The Beautiful People” that provides a bewildering conclusion to this soundtrack. Some of this stuff is quite good, particularly when Christina swings her hips to Etta's lead, bringing to mind the zest of “Ain’t No Other Man.”
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi