I posted this review this afternoon on Sputnik.com. It will probably be my last review of 2016.
If you live long enough, you start to see cycles and patterns repeating themselves. It certainly happens within the music world. The biggest consumers of popular music of any genre tend to be teens and young adults. Each generation finds its own sounds, and picks its own idols. More often than not, those idols tend to be bands and musicians near their own ages, or just slightly older. An artist hits a certain high and maintains it for three or four albums. If they have enough staying power, they have some ebbs and flows. Meanwhile, their audience grows a little older, and other concerns start to take priority over music. Before the artist knows it, they're past their musical prime, at least as far as the size of their fan base goes. If they're good enough, they keep a certain percentage of their old fans. Maybe they even make some new, younger ones, although usually not enough to replace all of the fans they lose to such concerns as jobs, children and mortgages. They become an artist out of time -- they were big once, but their best days have passed them.
Once in awhile, things cycle around enough that an artist who has been terminally uncool for decades suddenly becomes cool again. I've seen this happen with Santana, whose popularity started sliding after their third album in the early '70s, then suddenly grew again with their Supernatural album in 1999. God help me, I've even seen it happen to Tony Bennett, who was considered a laughable old relic by the kids of my generation, then inexplicably staged a comeback in the late '80s and early '90s, becoming everybody's favorite lovable singing grandpa. And there are a precious few bands, like The Who and The Rolling Stones, who are both continually respected and prestigious enough to still sell out decent size arenas even in their golden years. (I'm fairly sure that for The Stones, part of the reason is that pact with Satan Jagger and Richards made back in the '60s, but I could be wrong). Most of the time, though, in pop culture, when your time is up, your time is up. Bands have a shelf life, and those who have gone beyond their expiration date won't be taken seriously by younger generations, regardless of the quality of the music they continue to create.
Which brings me to Blondie. Blondie is a band out of their time. In their prime, in the late '70s and early '80s, they were one of the heavy hitters of the pop world. In 1976 and 1977, they were up-and-comers, a band with a sexy and charismatic front woman in Deborah Harry and a ton of potential. In 1978, they crashed down the gates with Parallel Lines, as perfect a pop album as any band has ever made. It bridged the gap between pop punk and new wave, and threw in a little disco as well on their huge hit single "Heart of Glass". The next year, they had another smash single with "Call Me" from the soundtrack of the American Gigolo movie. They had two more solidly successful albums, and then it all came crashing down with 1982's poorly received The Hunter. Following that, guitarist/songwriter Chris Stein became seriously ill, the band broke up, and after 3-4 short years at the top, it was over. Unlike a lot of bands, they did get a bit of a second bounce in 1999, with decent reviews for their comeback album No Exit, and a minor hit with the single "Maria". But 1999 was a long time ago.
Fast forward to 2014, fifteen years later, to the release of Ghosts of Download. Packaged as a two-fer with Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux, a re-recording of their greatest hits, in a package called Blondie 4 (0) Ever, Ghosts of Download is Blondie's 10th studio album. So how did they do?
It depends on how you measure it, but I'd say pretty well all things considered. From a commercial point of view, Ghosts was their most successful album since No Exit, easily surpassing 2003's The Curse of Blondie and 2011's Panic of Girls. The album at least made the Billboard charts, and although it topped out at #109 in the U.S., it got as high as #16 in the UK charts. The packaging with the greatest hits album might have helped this a little, but I suspect that it was the studio album that did most of the heavy lifting.
Here's the thing, though -- other than Parallel Lines, I'd rate this as the best album that Blondie ever made, and it was my favorite album of the year for 2014. Unfortunately, because Blondie is a band out of time, a collection of musicians most of whom are in their late sixties, the average music fan won't give them the time of day. On the Sputnik website, the album is currently rated as a respectable 3.4 out of 5, but the catch is that's with only 8 votes. Compare this with the 261 vote total for Parallel Lines, or even more relevantly with the almost 300-400 vote totals of some of today's pop stars like Ariana Grande or Carly Rae Jepsen, and you can see that it it could be the best album ever recorded, but the average music fan of today would never give it a listen.
Enough kvetching, though, let's talk about the music. As they did so many times in the past, Blondie offers a variety of sounds and genres on this album, and as a special bonus, there are a multitude of guest stars, too. My favorite track is a song called "A Rose by Any Name". Deborah Harry shares the lead vocals on this one with Beth Ditto of Gossip. The song features swirling synthesizers and vocal effects as Harry and Ditto extol the virtues of gender fluidity and pansexuality with a chorus of "If you're a boy or if you're a girl/I love you just the same." It's a lighthearted number, and a catchy one at that.
On the other hand, "Sugar on the Side," the album's first song, presents us with some Latin dance rhythms of the cumbia variety. Here, Blondie is joined by the Colombian hip-hop band Systema Solar, returning the favor for her guest appearance on their 2013 song "Artificial". This is another song heavily dominated by synthesizers, keyboards and various other electronic sounds.
"Mile High" goes to show that even her sixties, Harry is still a randy little devil, as she looks forward to joining the mile high club and experiencing some loving "between earth and sky". "Winter", on the other hand, is about a totally different kind of relationship, as Harry complains "You're so cold, I don't want you near/It's always winter when you're here."
As previously mentioned Ghosts of Download features various musical styles on different songs, including rock, reggae, light hip-hop and electronic dance pop. Other guest artists featured on the album include the Panamanian hip-hop duo Los Rakas on a mischievous song called "I Screwed Up", the lead singer of the New York band Toilet Boys, Miss Guy, on a slightly darker electro-pop number called "Rave", and a trio of singers, Keilah Baez, Felicia Baez and Keisha Williams on a (mostly) slow cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax".
Overall, the mood of Ghosts of Download is one of playfulness and joy. The band obviously had fun making this album, and their mood is infectious. If Blondie had released an album like this in their heyday, there's no doubt in my mind that it would have been a huge hit. On the other hand, they probably couldn't have released something like this while still in the midst of the struggle to get to the top and stay there. The album's vibe could only have come from a band confident enough of their past accomplishments to follow their musical whims, and, as Frankie would have said, "Relax!".
The word is that as we head into 2017, Blondie is gearing up to record another album. I only hope that it's anywhere near as good as Ghosts of Download, and that people open their minds up enough to give it a listen. Blondie my be a band out of time, but as this album shows, they can still make some damned fine music.