by Jeff Fiedler
Common Thread is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which we offer up mini-reviews of a small (and often very diverse) assortment of albums that all have one specific shared trait; that "common thread" can vary from column to column.
Left of the Middle, Natalie Imbruglia (1997, RCA)
Prior to her success as a pop star, the Australian-born Imbruglia starred as Beth Brennan for two years on the wildly-popular Australian soap opera Neighbours. Upon departing the show, she turned her attention to music and, with the help of Phil Thornalley (a former bass player and producer for The Cure who also replaced Clark Datchler as the lead singer in Johnny Hates Jazz; he’s also responsible for co-writing BBMak’s “Back Here” and producing Prefab Sprout’s “When Love Breaks Down”), she’d explode on American radio with the Thornalley-co-writes “Torn” (actually a cover of a song by the obscure band Ednaswap) and “Wishing I Was There.” Imbruglia’s U.S. success was sadly short-lived, the follow-up album White Lilies Island and its attendant single “Wrong Impression” selling only modestly, Imbruglia attracting greater notice in the U.S. at this point for her marriage to Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns. But Imbruglia’s continued to record all the same, and her most recent disc, 2015’s Male, is an intriguing conceptual affair comprised entirely of covers of songs by male acts like Daft Punk, Death Cab for Cutie, Iron & Wine, Neil Young, The Cure, and Zac Brown Band.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill (1999, Ruffhouse)
This New Jersey native is commonly known to most listeners as an alumnus of the multi-talented rap/hip-hop trio The Fugees (best known, of course, for their wildly inventive bare-bones remake of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” itself a remake of an obscure song by Lori Lieberman), but it’s easy to forget that Hill’s initial show-biz success was not as a singer, but as an actress, one who both stole scenes in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and had also appeared in a recurring role as Kira Johnson on the soap opera As the World Turns. Her full-length solo debut, of course, would be a massive success both critically and commercially, selling eight million copies in the U.S. alone, reaping all kinds of acclaim from trade publications and picking up five Grammies, including the trophy for Album of the Year and yielding hits in the infectious and cautionary chart-topper “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Ex-Factor,” and “Everything Is Everything” and containing such winning album cuts as “Lost Ones” (strangely bypassed as a single despite boasting a killer hook), “Nothing Even Matters,” and “Superstar.” Over seventeen years later, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill notoriously remains her only studio album to date (only the live MTV Unplugged prevents it from being her lone solo disc of any type), but then, this is a hard disc to top, and if she never made another album, this would certainly have to rank as one of the greatest one-and-done studio albums in the history of pop music.
Ricky Martin, Ricky Martin (1999, C2/Columbia)
He has boy-band origins – he got his first big break as a member of the Puerto Rican pop group Menudo from 1984 to 1990, with whom he briefly appeared on the Hot 100 with 1985’s “Hold Me” – but Martin first became widely exposed to a U.S. audience as an actor, thanks to a regular role on General Hospital as Miguel Morez that lasted from 1994 to 1995. Of course, Martin would become a bona fide superstar in the U.S. at the end of the ‘90s and usher in a Latin-music boom in this country (one that would ultimately make American stars of Shakira, Marc Anthony, and Enrique Iglesias), thanks to this multi-platinum self-titled English-language debut and its explosive chart-topping lead-off single, “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” penned by Martin’s former Menudo bandmate Robi Rosa with Songwriting Hall of Fame member Desmond Child, best known for his co-writes with Bon Jovi and Aerosmith. Sadly, Martin didn’t have nearly the staying power on U.S. radio that Shakira and Iglesias would have and he’s, of course, still primarily remembered in this country for “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (and, to a lesser extent, “Shake Your Bon-Bon” and “She Bangs”) but there are other fine tunes here that have either been forgotten to time or sadly never got noticed in the U.S. at all. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that Martin came just one spot shy of scoring a second Number One hit here with his next single, the lovely ballad “She’s All I Ever Had,” written by the wildly-underappreciated Jon Secada (“Do You Believe in Us,” “Just Another Day,” “I’m Free,” “If You Go”)), or that he made one of the few World Cup anthems (“The Cup of Life”) to ever perform well on the Hot 100. The disc also boasts a gorgeous and unfortunately completely overlooked knockout of a ballad in the harmony-laden duet “Private Emotion,” performed with Swedish singer Meja and written by Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian of The Hooters.
X, Kylie Minogue (2007, Capitol)
Why Kylie Minogue (who got her first big break as an actress, most famously playing tomboy-turned-mechanic Charlene Robinson on Neighbours for two years, a role that led to a record deal with Mushroom Records) has failed to light up the U.S. charts to the same magnitude she has pretty much throughout all of Europe, New Zealand, and her native Australia, is one of the biggest mysteries in pop music. Even the few legitimate hits she’s had in this country aren’t really representative of the brilliance of her body of work. She did reach the Billboard Top 40 three times in the ‘80s with “I Should Be So Lucky,” “It’s No Secret,” and her cover of Little Eva’s “The Locomotion,” but those singles pale wildly in comparison to her best work from that same time period, like “Never Too Late,” “Better the Devil You Know,” and “Hand on Your Heart,” all of which got completely ignored here. Even after she scored an unlikely American comeback in 2001 with Fever’s haunting “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and, to a lesser degree, the brighter neo-disco of “Love at First Sight,” radio programmers would tragically immediately lose interest in Kylie again and completely ignore even superior singles like “Slow,” “Get Out of My Way,” and “All the Lovers.” Post-Fever albums like Aphrodite and Body Language are arguably even better than Fever was, but X might be her most fun disc of all, not just for its generous supply of relentless hooks but also for its sheer adventurousness, the disc even opening with a surprisingly rock-tinged strutter called “2 Hearts” that distinctly calls to mind pre-Siren Roxy Music, while cuts like “Wow,” “The One,” “In My Arms,” and “Heartbeat Rock” are as much fun to listen to for their inventive and futuristic production as they are for their melodies. [Interestingly enough, Kylie’s also gone in the complete opposite direction, releasing an entirely “unplugged”-style full-length called The Abbey Road Sessions highlighted by breathtakingly beautiful bare-bones re-recordings of “Never Too Late,” “Hand on Your Heart” and “All the Lovers.” Even Madonna’s never been daring enough to try that!]
Departure: Recharged, Jesse McCartney (2009, Hollywood)
This former teen idol starred from 1998 to 2001 (and even picked up an Emmy nomination for his role) as JR Chandler on All My Children while doubling as a member of the boy band Dream Street. The band didn’t do much, but once McCartney went solo, he’d have a respectable run of solo hits – as a performer, he’s garnered five Top 40 hits in all – that began with 2005’s “Beautiful Soul.” Three of those hits all hail from this one album alone: “Body Language,” the flirtatious Top Ten smash “Leavin’,” and, best of all, the wildly catchy “How Do You Sleep” (sporting a guest rap from Ludacris.) McCartney’s been relatively quiet since then, releasing just one disc (2014’s In Technicolor), but he’s continued to regularly pick up television and film roles (he’s found particularly lucrative work doing voice roles in animated children’s films like the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise) and he’s also the co-writer behind Leona Lewis’ chart-topping single “Bleeding Love.”