No offense to the girls who managed to stay afloat in a crowded field during the sun-scorched months — imports Duffy and Leona Lewis both managed to score critical and commercial bullseyes, and Cyndi Lauper, an old friend of ours from way back, came out of nowhere with what was my hands-down favorite album of the summer, the brazenly brilliant Bring Ya to the Brink (more on that in an upcoming now hear this post celebrating the season’s strongest offerings) — but it was, by and large, the guys who made the music of summer 2008 such a pleasant surprise.  Fall is on our doorsteps, but before we close the book on the season just passed, let’s take a glance back at the men (some young, others not so much) who gave us the works of art worth getting out of bed for.


She has never asked me to explain the origins and the depths of my seemingly nonsensical obsession with one Hilary Duff, so I have likewise refrained from forcing Sherry Ann to quantify her fixation with that supreme doofus Jason Mraz.  (Mocking it outright is markedly easier, besides.)  Best known for his inescapably goofy 2003 radio smash “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry),” Mraz and his often-cloying attempts at flippant cleverness have the most mystifying effect on Sherry Ann’s otherwise potent mind.  (However, as the proud owner of all of Duff’s records, up to and including all of the Lizzie McGuire soundtracks — film and television, honey — I understand better than most that we all have our vices.)


I’ve been largely immune to Mraz’s arguable charms heretofore (not that it’s been a terrible struggle, that), so imagine my surprise to find at least some of his third album, May’s We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things, something close to enjoyable.  You’ve no doubt heard the record’s leadoff single, the sweetly rendered “I’m Yours,” as it has been all over television of late, and if you haven’t already, you must investigate We Cubed‘s strongest track, “Details in the Fabric,” a painfully intimate duet-of-sorts with one of last year’s most intriguing newcomers, James Morrison.  It’s a gen-yin master class in splendid, heartbreaking harmony, and it again beautifullly proves my point about the maddening Mraz:  when this boy chucks his ridiculous slacker shtick and simply sings, he’s capable of knocking ’em out of the park right and left.

Sugarland’s gloriously gentle live cover of his “Come On Get Higher” — one of the few bright spots on their fair-to-middling third album Love on the Inside, about which I’m crushed to say I’m not wild — has cultivated interest in Matt Nathanson and in Some Mad Hope, the 2007 album on which the original version of “Higher” appears.  If you’re unfamiliar with Nathanson’s terrific work, there has never been a better time than now to correct that:  Hope is on sale at Best Buy this week for the staggering price of $7.99, and it’s loaded with enjoyable, radio-friendly fare (be sure not to miss “Car Crash,” this record’s unjustly ignored first single).  “Higher” is climbing the charts as I type this, which gives one hope that the gorgeous Nathanson is finally well on his way toward the superstardom he has long deserved to call his own.

Speaking musically, Steve Winwood has lived roughly Nine Lives, one reason why his latest album — which, indeed, is his ninth — couldn’t have a more apropos title.  Alone, his ’60s and ’70s work with both The Spencer Davis Group and Traffic would be enough to make him a hall-of-famer, but as pop music progressed into the ’80s, Winwood managed to take the risky leap to acclaimed solo artist and stick the landing; pretty much everything he touched that entire decade — from ’81’s iconic “While You See a Chance” plumb up through ’88’s huge smash “Roll With It” — was an expertly etched classic, as his inimitably soulful voice made him a star all over again.  His output slowed considerably in the ’90s, but when British DJ Eric Prydz sampled the chorus of Winwood’s triumphant 1987 hit “Valerie” in his dancefloor sensation “Call On Me” a few years back, the creative fire in Winwood’s belly reignited.


And so was born Lives.  Featuring “Dirty City,” a frisky collaboration with his old bandmate Eric Clapton (perhaps you’ve heard of him), it’s an album of strong lyrics and instrumental flourishes.  (Of its nine tracks — funny how that number keeps popping up here, yeah? — seven of them are at least six minutes in length, and “Fly” almost reaches eight.)  The whole affair becomes a tad tiresome by the end, but it’s so great to have the invaluable Winwood back in the fold — now age sixty, the man still sounds amazing — that I’m loath to complain.  In its stead, I’ll simply say, “Welcome back, sir.”

His debut single, 2004’s impossibly polished “On the Way Down,” was a heavenly slice of escapist pop (and its follow-up, “True,” was a surprisingly moving declaration of love), but Ryan Cabrera fell on hard times trying to escape the looming shadow of instant success.  In order to capitalize on whatever measure of fleeting fame Cabrera had managed to wrangle for himself, his sophomore album — 2005’s instant flop You Stand Watching — was rushed into production, and sounded like it; minus a radio hit on the level of “Down” (or, for that matter, even one moderately memorable tune), the record and its performer tumbled down the rabbit hole of obscurity.


Four years later, Cabrera has resurfaced.  Now sporting a grungier look — that trademark spiky blond ‘do is now a grimy, unwashed variation on that indelible Seals and Crofts look from three decades ago — and rocking a slightly harder sound — he’s still a pop singer at heart, and don’t doubt it for a second, but the kid has clearly been boning up on his Marcy Playground collection in his time away from the public glare — Cabrera’s back with his third major-label release, The Moon Under Water, an interesting mix of beefy guitars and introspective lyrics which has so far been met with indifferent shrugs.  (Don’t let that distract you, however; most things which deserve your attention are, at least initially.)  He’ll probably never again scale the dizzying heights of commercial triumph, but he seems to have made peace with that fact and has set about carving his own niche.  For the first time ever, Cabrera feels eminently comfortable inside the confines of his own skin, and for an artist of any stripe, that beats a hundred platinum albums every shot out of the box.

His debut record — 2006’s masterfully messy Multiply — became an underground sensation, thanks to a series of raves from no less a gauge of talent than Sir Elton John, and a surprise club smash “A Little Bit More,” which drew justifiable comparisons to both Prince’s and Moby’s early material.  (Quite a musical marriage, that.)  Now, with Jim, Jamie Lidell is aiming for the big time by fleshing out the formula he crafted for Multiply and by filling in some of its broad strokes.  Those two fools who run Gnarls Barkley really ought a grab a hold here:  that sense of frenetic eclecticism that Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse were so desperately trying to shoehorn into their two records, Lidell has captured it here with bold, effortless perfection.

A hundred thousand leagues removed from the irritating pubescent twit he played on “All My Children” a decade and better ago, the blisteringly sexy Jesse McCartney has taken the unquestionable star turn of the summer.  Already ablaze in the wake of his work on Leona Lewis’ global phenom “Bleeding Love” (which he co-wrote with the equally stunning Ryan Tedder, in a brash blast of brilliance that is quite likely to earn both gentlemen an armful of Grammys come February), McCartney stepped up his game with cocky determination in front of the microphone as well, with his third album, the aptly-titled Departure.  Trading in the squeaky-clean pop of his lone hit — 2005’s “Beautiful Soul,” a great song but not a game-changer by half — for an edgier, more masculine feel — I double-dog-dare you to tell me with a straight face that his single “Leavin’,” the surprise megasmash of the seasaon, doesn’t get you even a little hot under the collar — McCartney has, against all odds, hurtled himself firmly into Timberlake territory.  What he does with his newfound momentum is squarely up to him, but I say the fact that Billy Ray has already put his foot down and flat ass forbidden him from dating li’l miss Miley is all the proof you need that this kid is doin’ something right.

Hailed as a wunderkind in the wake of Chariot, his slow-burning 2003 sleeper which took nearly two full years to reach critical mass (and to incubate a radio hit, the driving, brilliant “I Don’t Want to Be”), Gavin DeGraw took his sweet time crafting the follow-up to his terrific debut.  Take it from me:  the result was worth the excruciating wait.  Led by the irresistible summer smash “In Love with a Girl” (which, as I wrote several months back, takes a cue from “I Don’t” without being a straight-up carbon copy), DeGraw’s self-titled sophomore effort is an enormously enjoyable musical romp.  Loaded to the brim with his own ace piano playing, DeGraw branches out this time onto more of a blues-influenced path, even drafting a handful of his favorite New Orleans jazz musicians to play on a pair of key tracks, most notably “Cop Stop,” which I’m stunned to find isn’t gonna be the record’s second single.  (Daddy Clive decided, in a frustrating bit of ill logic, to go with the album’s weakest track, “Cheated On Me,” instead.)  But no matter:  DeGraw is a worthy successor to a spectacular debut, and considering the piss-poor track record other artists have enjoyed chasing that particular ghost — yeah, ask Misters Mraz and Cabrera exactly how tough it is to make a good sophomore album — that alone is something to celebrate.


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